A native of Mercer Island, WA, Larson enrolled at Caltech in 1948. He initially intended to study chemistry, but he eventually switched to mechanical engineering. As he explained to a room full of laughter during his Caltech Distinguished Alumnus award acceptance speech in 2016, “When you are on the left side of the bell curve of grades and slipping, it is better to graduate as an engineer than to flunk as a chemist.”
Larson interacted with many of the Institute’s distinguished scholars as student waiter, most notably serving dinner to Robert A. Millikan, Arthur Noyes, and Lee A. DuBridge at the Athenaeum or as a “house boy” for the President’s Residence. This early exposure to world-class education and research forged his conviction that “there’s no place, in my opinion—my belief, really—that does a better job of providing an environment where people can learn to be scientists than Caltech,” as he told attendees at Caltech’s 2017 scholarship reception.
Over decades, Carl and his wife, Shirley, engaged actively with the Caltech community—often behind the scenes and anonymously. Carl was incredibly generous with both his time and his resources, from serving as president of the Caltech Associates and chairman of the board for the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURF) program, to extolling the virtues of planned giving to Nobel laureates in the Athenaeum’s Hayman Lounge.
Larson was also adamant that one should “give good people the resources and get out of the way.” He would often remark to Caltech faculty and staff—using an aerodynamic analogy inspired by his time as a weather forecaster in the U.S. Air Force and his enthusiasm for vexillology (the study of flags)—that his only intention was to “increase lift without adding drag.” Although he is already thoroughly missed, many at the Institute will continue to fly due to the strength of Carl’s everlasting tailwinds.
Carl is survived by his wife, Shirley, two children, two grandchildren, and friends of every generation.