Pastor Brent Bielenberg will never forget the frosty spring day he walked into the Keys Café in Woodbury and noticed Brett Carlson seated inside, mid-conversation with a friend.
"Yeah, I'm not going to pay for my food today," Bielenberg recalled thinking to himself.
Sure enough, when Bielenberg's order arrived, the server said the check had already been taken care of and gestured toward the café entrance as Carlson walked out.
Friends and colleagues describe Brett Carlson as their biggest inspiration, their "supporter-in-chief" and a light in any room he walked into. He died Nov. 26 after a two-year battle with colon cancer. Carlson was 45.
He was born at United Hospital in St. Paul on Nov. 17, 1977, though he grew up in White Bear Lake. Brett Carlson was an active kid — he played football, basketball and baseball in high school.
"He loved to play with anything he could bounce or throw," his brother Brandon Carlson said.
Brett Carlson earned his bachelor's degree in social studies education at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls in 2001. During his time there, he met and fell in love with the woman who became his wife, Renee. They married in 2002 and had two daughters: Megan in 2007 and Sarah in 2010.
Brett and Renee bonded over their faith. He began every morning with a prayer and read the Bible avidly, journaling his thoughts and takeaways.
Brett Carlson's passion for sports followed him through college, where he worked for the Kansas City Chiefs during summer training each year, and into his eventual career as an educator.
He taught at several metro-area high schools, beginning with a tenure at Apple Valley High. He loved connecting with students and relished his time as a coach, whether it was football, basketball, baseball or track and field.
"He had a gift for making people feel comfortable, safe and important," Renee Carlson said. "Brett's purpose and focus was on others."
A prolific Twitter user, he used the platform to promote school fundraisers and sporting events with a simple "Let's go!"
Brett Carlson eventually took on several administrative roles at North Branch Area Schools, where he worked closely with then-Superintendent Deb Henton. She recalled how Brett Carlson would occasionally don his letterman's jacket from White Bear Lake High on special occasions to good-natured eyerolls from his colleagues.
"I can imagine him breaking out that jacket in heaven," Henton said.
Brett Carlson stepped away from his work as an educator in January 2020 when he decided to take a yearlong sabbatical to spend time visiting family across the state. He cut the trip short two months in when he was diagnosed with colon cancer.
Brett Carlson spent much of the next 18 months visiting schools and delivering motivational speeches on the power of perseverance and showing up for others.
"He wanted people to dream and give themselves permission to think big," Renee Carlson said.
Carlson is survived by his wife and daughters; parents Tom and Karlene; brother Brandon; and sister Heidi Olson.
Services have been held.