Kate Ramsayer / The Bulletin

Dick Carlson, a prominent businessman, community leader and former mayor of Bend, died early Sunday morning in Borrego Springs, Calif., at age 76.

Carlson, who ran Bend-based Carlson Sign Co. for many years before turning it over to his son Peter, loved Bend and felt it was his duty to try to make it a better place, said his oldest son, Ted Carlson, of Phoenix.

“They were building a community,” he said of Dick Carlson and his friends. “There was a spirit in (Bend) when I was growing up. We were a sleepy little mill town, but they were building something, they were making it better. They loved the town, they loved each other, they loved the mountains and the outdoors.”

Carlson was involved in everything from beautifying the Brooks Street area between the Deschutes River and Wall Street to designing the fireworks displays on the Fourth of July — the bigger and louder, the better, said Craig MacCloskey, a retired orthopedic surgeon and Carlson’s friend for 50 years.

Carlson was Bend’s mayor in the late 1970s, when the city had to put in sewers to replace septic systems. He was instrumental in getting federal money for the project.

“He just believed in the community,” MacCloskey said. “(If) he was going to live here, by golly, he was going to help it out as best he could.”

And he was a loyal friend, MacCloskey said — a good listener who didn’t necessarily always agree with people, but who did what he could to help them.

“He was kind of a little hardheaded, a little contrarian, but he believed in doing the right thing, and that’s how he ended up being the mayor and taking care of local businesses,” MacCloskey said. “He cared a lot.”

Carlson was born in Portland on April 18, 1932, and lived in Seattle and Spokane, Wash., before moving to Bend in 1948 as a sophomore in high school, Ted Carlson said. After graduating from Bend High School in 1950, he went to the University of Oregon, where he was involved in ROTC. He went on to become a pilot in the Air Force, returning to Bend in 1957.

Dick Carlson married his wife, Mary Campbell, in 1955 — the two had met at a church camp near Hoodoo Butte, between his home of Bend and her home of Salem. They had three children: Ted, Peter and Mary Sue, who died in 1983. Beginning in 1985, the Carlsons spent winters in Borrego Springs.

When Carlson came back to Bend after the Air Force, he ran the Carlson Sign Co. with his mother, Irene Carlson Bostelman, until 1968, when he took over the business. Carlson Sign made just about every electrical sign in Bend and Central Oregon, including the ones that line Third Street and the Dandy’s Drive-In sign.

Carlson also kept busy with a number of sports and hobbies.

“He wasn’t a dilettante,” Ted Carlson said. When he started something new, he threw himself into it, according to his son. “He never considered failing. If he wanted to learn to fly fish, he learned to fly fish.”

Dick Carlson took up skiing in the early 1970s and became a good — and aggressive — recreational skier, his son said. He was the president of the Skyliners outdoor club for a while in the ’70s, when he managed and organized the club’s races.

One of his latest interests was in opera, Ted Carlson said, which he flew to Salzburg, Austria, for a week to experience.

Dick Carlson continued flying after leaving the Air Force, conducting search and rescue operations with the Civil Air Patrol. But he had fun with his planes, too, Ted Carlson said.

“He was pretty well known around for doing acrobatics above the town,” he said, adding that his father would sometimes buzz the family’s home.

Flying and skiing were two of Carlson’s favorite sports, said fellow pilot and friend Bob Schock, of Bend. But he was also a civic leader who ran a tight ship as mayor and ran the city well, his friend said.

“He’s been a fixture in this town forever,” Schock said.

Plans for Carlson’s service had not yet been finalized as of Sunday evening.