To Nebraskans and Iowans, Johnny Carson was more than the affable former host of “The Tonight Show.”
The Iowa-born, Nebraska-raised comedian also was a philanthropist, friend and favorite native son.
Midlanders won't soon forget the quick-witted TV personality who left behind a legacy marked by generosity and humor.
“Johnny Carson was a first-class act,” Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman. “He never forgot his ties to Nebraska, and his generosity has created a lasting legacy in our state.”
“He was generous. He was very gracious,” said Betty Bohac, director of Elkhorn Valley Museum & Research Center in Norfolk, Neb. Carson spent much of his childhood in Norfolk.
“He really epitomized the community. He was so down to earth.”
The museum has a permanent display of Carson memorabilia, including Emmy Awards and framed magazine covers.
Across the state, numerous buildings bearing Carson's name testify to his devotion to Nebraska.
In Norfolk, a $2.27 million gift funded a cancer radiation center — named after his parents — and a $600,000 check helped pay for Norfolk Public Schools' Johnny Carson Theater. Carson also gave $1 million to Northeast Community College and $500,000 to the Norfolk Library Foundation, among others.
At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Carson gave millions of dollars to fund an annual student scholarship and to benefit performing arts education. In November 2004, he donated $5.3 million, in part to renovate the Temple Building, where Carson honed his craft as a college student.
“It reflects the love he had for the university and, in particular, the experiences he had in that building,” said Jack Oliva, dean of the Hixson-Lied College of the Fine and Performing Arts at UNL. “He never forgot the university and never forgot what the university meant to him.”
Carson also donated money to several Iowa towns where his family briefly lived, including a skate park in Corning, an indoor recreation center in Clarinda, an arts center in Red Oak and a library project in Avoca.
In 1988, when he was in Norfolk for the dedication of the Carson Regional Radiation Center, Carson explained his generosity:
“I have always felt that if you're lucky enough in this life to accumulate enough funds to live better than you have any right to, then you have a moral obligation to pay back to the community, or to the country or to the place that brought you up.”
Carson was born John William Carson in Corning on Oct. 23, 1925, to Homer “Kit” and Ruth Carson.
His father was a manager for Iowa-Nebraska Light and Power Co. and moved his family to the Iowa towns of Clarinda, Red Oak and Avoca before settling in Norfolk in 1933. His mother, Ruth, was a homemaker.
Carson paid tribute to Norfolk when he returned to film the 1982 NBC special “Johnny Goes Home.”
As a youngster, Carson showed a passion for magic. He ordered a magic kit at age 12, and soon “The Great Carsoni” was born. He began performing two years later at local Elks, Moose and Redmen Lodges.
After graduating from high school, Carson served as a Navy ensign during World War II. He enrolled at the University of Nebraska after his tour and earned a bachelor of arts degree in radio and speech in 1949.
He later worked at WOW-TV and WOW radio in Omaha. He left Nebraska during the 1950s to host a series of TV shows, including “Carson's Cellar,” “Earn Your Vacation” and “Who Do You Trust?” before filling in for Jack Paar on “The Tonight Show” in 1958.
Richard “Pete” Petrashek, a retired WOWT news photographer who worked with Carson at WOW-TV, said Carson was the one who dubbed him Pete. At one time, Petrashek said, there were five men named Richard at the station, all of whom went by the nickname “Dick.” Carson got tired of it, Petrashek said, and he declared, “From now on, you're Pete Petrashek.”
Bohac, the Norfolk museum director, said Carson would live on.
“We're proud of him that he did make good in Hollywood,” she said. “But we also have a good deal of respect for him because he did not forget his hometown.”
Johnny Carson's gifts to the Midlands Some of the donations by Johnny Carson to Nebraska and Iowa cities and institutions. In some cases, Carson asked that the amount not be announced. Carson was known to make gifts anonymously.
$5.3 million Renovation and expansion of the Temple Building at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Part of the gift — $1 million — was an endowment for technology enhancements in the theater arts.
$2.27 million A cancer radiation center in Norfolk, Neb.
$1 million Lifelong Learning Center at Northeast Community College in Norfolk.
$600,000 Norfolk Public Schools for the Johnny Carson Theater.
$500,000 Norfolk Library Foundation.
$500,000 Nebraska Cultural Endowment.
$450,000 Nebraska Endowment for the Humanities.
$150,000 Toward the Lied Community Center in Clarinda, Iowa.
$100,000 Elkhorn Valley Museum and Research Center in Norfolk.
$100,000 Norfolk Arts Center.
$100,000 Norfolk Senior Citizens Center.
$100,000 University of Nebraska Foundation for four merit-based scholarships.
$75,000 Skate park in Corning, Iowa.
$55,000 Chimpanzee house at Zoo Nebraska in Royal, Neb.
$20,000 Renovation of primate building at Zoo Nebraska.
$3,000 Library in Avoca, Iowa. Carson attended school in the town.
Undisclosed Toward construction of the $20 million Lied Center for the Performing Arts at UNL.
Undisclosed For a rehearsal room in a center being built by the Performing Arts & Education Association of Southwest Iowa at Red Oak, Iowa, where Carson went to kindergarten.
Memorabilia from his office to the Elkhorn Valley Museum in Norfolk.