Attorney Stephen Carlson, former mentor to Michelle Obama, dead at 70

A longtime mentor to former first lady Michelle Obama has died at the age of 70.

According to reports, Chicago-area attorney Stephen Carlson died on Sept. 21 after a lengthy battle with progressive supranuclear palsy, which is a degenerative disease that attacks the brain.

“What a Princeton gentleman should do”

Carlson was reportedly influential in Obama’s early legal career, hiring her to work at his Sidley Austin law firm where she eventually met and married a young Barack Obama. Despite the close connection, there was apparently no official statement from the Obamas in connection with his death.

In the 2009 book Michelle: A Biography, author Liza Mundy provided some details about how Carlson assisted in developing the inexperienced attorney’s career.

Their relationship began with an unsolicited letter Michelle Robinson sent to Carlson in search of a summer job in 1984 while she was still enrolled at Princeton University.

Carlson only hired law students at the time and politely turned down her request, but he contacted her a couple of years later — when she was a student at Harvard Law School — and offered her the summer job she previously sought.

“I just treated Michelle as I would have anybody,” Carlson once said of the encounter. “I regard it as simply what a Princeton gentleman should do to anyone who asks for his help.”

“More than enough”

It was while she was working under Carlson’s mentorship that Robinson met her future husband, who was working for the summer at the same law firm.

An obituary noted that Carlson was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota but moved to Illinois in high school. He attended Princeton, where he met his future wife Patricia on the debate team, and went on to graduate from Yale Law School.

He began a 40-year career at the Sidley Austin firm where, in addition to the future first lady, he was known for taking junior associates under his wing.

“If we can make life better for others, that is really probably all we accomplish and is more than enough,” reads a quote attributed to Carlson. “If you have succeeded in making life better for anyone else because you were here, then you have lived a good life.”

In addition to his wife, Carlson is survived by three daughters and their spouses, four grandchildren, and three siblings.

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