By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Kim Carlson was a sophomore at the University of Nebraska at Kearney – known then as Kearney State College – when the man of her dreams walked into Ludden Hall.
She knew right away and even told her close friend Robb Lash: “That is the man I’m going to marry someday.”
“I sat there and talked to him, and after he walked away, for some reason that just clicked,” Kim says before pausing.
“He didn’t feel the same way,” she adds with a laugh.
It definitely took Darby Carlson a little longer to fully recognize their connection.
“He tells people that I stalked him for a year,” Kim jokes.
They were both biology majors living in Ludden Hall and attending many of the same classes and social events, so a friendship developed quite quickly. When Darby went back to his hometown of Gretna after his freshman year, they exchanged letters throughout the summer – and they still have all 43 of them.
That fall, when Darby returned to Kearney for the start of a new semester, Kim decided she was ready to take their relationship to the next level. She invited Darby and his roommates – Lash and the late Heath Kuebler – to a get-together at her apartment.
They were sitting on an old couch near the dumpster – “Romantic,” Darby says sarcastically – when Kim opened up.
“I told him I wanted to be more than friends with him,” she recalls, “and he got up, got in his car, left his two roommates at my apartment and drove away.”
A week later, during another party at Kim’s apartment, Darby finally decided they should date.
After five years together, the couple married on March 18, 1995, in Kim’s hometown of Scribner. She was working on a doctorate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln at the time and he was finishing his master’s degree at UNK.
They lived in Lincoln and Omaha before returning to Kearney in 2003 to work at UNK.
“For me, coming back here felt like coming back home,” Kim says. “We liked it here as undergrads. We like the people here. We like the students here. And our kids love it here.”
More than three decades after they first met, the Carlsons are still hanging out together on campus.
They both teach in the UNK Department of Biology, where Kim is a professor and department co-chair and Darby is a senior lecturer. Their offices are right next to each other on the second floor of the Bruner Hall of Science.
“We spend every day together – 24/7. For most couples that wouldn’t work, but for some reason it works OK for us,” says Kim, who earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UNK in 1992 and 1994, respectively.
“We’re just used to it because we’ve done this for such a long time now,” adds Darby, who completed his degrees in 1993 and 1995.
So what’s the secret to achieving the perfect work-life balance?
“I’m the boss,” Kim says with a smile.
“We talk a lot and we’re really patient with each other,” she continues. “Darby is like my best friend.”
“I think she has a lot of patience with me,” he adds. “I have my moments when I’m pretty stubborn.”
As fellow faculty members and biologists, they have plenty of shared interests.
The Carlsons conducted research together for many years and they continue to help each other out in the lab on occasion. They’re not afraid to bounce ideas off each other either.
“It’s kind of nice because he knows exactly what I’m talking about and can give me advice,” Kim says.
“There’s definite value there,” Darby adds.
Kim currently teaches genetics and bioethics, and Darby leads two of the genetics labs. He also teaches microbiology lectures and labs along with anatomy and physiology labs.
Outside work, they like to attend UNK athletic events – Kim’s cousin Winston Cook is a member of the men’s basketball team – watch movies, go for walks and play trivia with Nick and Alexis Hobbs, their close friends and colleagues in the biology department.
There are plenty of school activities, too.
Their son Zane is a junior at UNK majoring in 7-12 social science education. He conducts and presents research through the Undergraduate Research Fellows program. Daughter Tori is a junior at Kearney High School who’s active in show choir, theater and musicals.
The entire family is involved in Camp Quest Kansas City, a weeklong summer camp where youths ages 8-17 participate in recreational activities and learn about topics such as humanism, freethought, critical thinking, scientific inquiry and nature appreciation. Darby serves as board president and assistant director for the nonprofit, educational camp; Kim is the programming director; Zane is a camp counselor; and Tori attends each summer.
“We definitely spend a lot of time together away from campus, too,” Kim says. “But it works really well because we’re also two very different people.”
YING AND YANG
Darby is the quiet one – an introvert who enjoys yardwork, feeding the squirrels, brewing his own beer and playing pickup basketball games.
He’s also “very organized.”
“I’m trying to think of a nice way to say this. He’s OCD – very bad,” Kim says. “If I put stuff in the refrigerator, he reorganizes it. If I put something anywhere, it has to be organized his way.”
Kim, on the other hand, is much more social and outgoing. Darby calls her “assertive,” but she prefers the term passionate.
“I’m definitely the louder one,” she says. “I have a big personality and I know that.”
After all, that big personality is what brought them together.
As their 28th wedding anniversary approaches, Kim and Darby both smile as they look at their engagement photo. She’s rocking puffed-up ’80s hair and he’s clean-shaven without any gray in sight.
“Tell him why you have gray hair. Why do you say you have gray hair?” Kim interjects.
“I don’t remember,” Darby wisely replies.
“He points to me,” she says, getting in the last word.