My grandfather passed away recently. He was a man I always looked up to, a man who helped raise me, a man more influential in my life than anyone beyond my mother, his daughter. If there were justice in this world, his would be a life taught to schoolchildren and celebrated as that of a great American. I’m sure there have been many like him; devoted citizens, spouses, and parents whose lives shape us all for the better despite, or perhaps because of, their anonymity. But he was the person I knew, the person I loved, and I will always be grateful for his time here.
He was the grandson of Norwegian immigrants, a line he claimed to trace to Erik the Red. His relatives worked the iron mines of northern Minnesota, the mines that helped build America. He grew up working in his father’s store, keeping the miners and their families fed and supplied. He grew up loving the northwoods and their lakes, spending so much time in what is now the Boundary Waters that for the rest of his life he was often happiest in a canoe.
He and his brothers went to war along with their generation, a young man drawn far from the backwoods into worlds he’d never imagined. Through the invasions of North Africa, Sicily, and Italy, he served in a quartermaster’s camp just behind the lines, helping to support others in their duty. Though he never shared many details of his experiences, from his deeply personal letters home, I know that he struggled to reconcile his Christian faith with the evil and suffering he saw around him, and with his role in it. His war ended in the mountains of central Italy, when a surprise attack sent shrapnel ripping through his leg. He would have bled to death in the chaos but for the bravery of two others who helped him to safety and medical help in time. For the rest of his life, he bore a deep gouge through both sides of his lower leg as a reminder of how lucky, or perhaps blessed, he had been.
Recovering in New Orleans, a long process, he met a pretty young farm girl from southern Mississippi, in the big city for the first time and studying to be a nurse. A classic story of their time, he wooed and won her heart. Sharing a deep faith and a desire to make the world a better place, she supported his decision to enter seminary and emerge a minister bound for missionary work. My mother was born in Dallas as he studied. Following seminary, he pastored two small churches in northern Minnesota, and not long afterward the decision was made. A true son of the North, he dreamed of Alaska, but instead was assigned to the remote southern jungles of the Philippines.
They spent much of the next two decades there, raising a family of four, and serving the remote Christian communities on several islands. They were an excellent pair, able to tend to matters both spiritual and medical in areas stricken by poverty and politics. Even then, tension and rebellion fomented in this diverse and rugged region, and many times he returned from long trips with bullet holes in his jeep. Today, we cannot return to where my mother grew up, as these are the areas where American troops are working alongside Filipinos to counter a violent insurgency. Despite the dangers and hardships, he stuck to his ambition to improve people’s lives, and did so in a way that integrated the best of both worlds into my family. Even today, Filipino food and culture is valued and preserved among many of us.
The family travelled throughout the world, eventually returning to the United States for good, though the focus on service never changed. For decades more, my grandfather served as minister to communities in many states, with my grandmother always supporting and complementing his mission. Eventually, he earned his dream of serving in Alaska, moving there several times to minister to small churches along the southern panhandle. He loved Alaska with all his heart, and though he finally semi-retired in the mountains of North Carolina, he never tired of telling its stories.
He was a story teller worthy of his Viking ancestors, always willing to recount a tale or slip in a joke. He remembered, invented, embellished, and always fascinated a devoted grandson like me with a repertoire earned from a life of travel, adventure, and service. For someone so talkative, he had the rare patience and empathy of a good listener, and could relate to and draw out almost anyone. Being in his company, you always felt he was paying attention, and meant it. It is a skill I respect all the more for not having myself, though I know how important his care was to me growing up.
He was a man who knew how to make the best of things, in ways that pleased others. Faced with a young grandson fascinated by all things military, he swallowed his memories and told a carefully sanitized set of war stories, over and over, recounting the times but not the realities. We played silly war games, pretending his car was a fighter plane shooting down bombers (the other cars). It wasn’t until much later that I truly understood how much he had left out, and why. Together we attended the deeply realistic film Saving Private Ryan, which many veterans had praised. We left in tears, our arms around each other, and I thanked him for his service. Though we never did speak of the details of his experiences, he later told my mother it was one of the nicest things anyone had done for him, to share that experience, that understanding, and that depth of feeling. The tolerance and love he showed me, to share my youthful enthusiasm without betraying the darkness beyond it, was equally meaningful to me.
To both my mother and myself, he passed along a deep love of travel and the outdoors, of the joy to be gained from exploring and appreciating all that the world has to offer. He taught us to love water and canoes especially, on trips short and long through the Minnesota northwoods and their endless chains of remote lakes. Again befitting his heritage, he was ever restless, ever ready to go somewhere new, explore something different, learn what else there was to learn around the next bend. Even in his sixties, he spent a summer travelling the west with my mother and I, living in a small tent trailer which shook with his snores. We teased him constantly that an amorous bear would be drawn to us in the night.
Until his body finally shut down, he was ever-ready to set off on a new adventure. Only a few years ago, he and my grandmother undertook the difficult journey west to attend the wedding of Joanna and I, at the Missouri farm on which we had settled. It may have felt strange to him, seeing a descendant with the travelling blood choosing to set down such roots, but he enjoyed the trip and delighted in seeing a new chapter begin in the long narrative he began to spin so many years ago.
He passed his ninetieth birthday, and his sixty-third wedding anniversary, though his body was finally beginning to fail. The radius of travel slowly closed around him, as a world which had been there for the taking gently but insistently shrunk toward his chair, his bed, and his desk. In the final years, I and many of my family took turns spending weeks upon weeks with them both, helping out as needed and gaining a little more time, a few more stories, returning some small fraction of the love, care, and attention that he and my grandmother had given over the years.
They moved several times, closer to family, to make the care easier, first to Virginia, then to New York. True to the ethic of a couple who devoted their lives to helping others, their own children and grandchildren poured time, resources, and energy into returning that devotion. In our broken medical system, families must do what a fractured, dysfunctional, and expensive system cannot. It is a sad day when a man who served his country, his faith, and his family so well can be let to slip through the cracks this way. But we never left him, and one night in May his lively eyes, which for so many years had looked always to the horizon for the next opportunity, closed forever.
He led a diverse, successful, and valuable life that fulfilled many of his dreams, and will be fondly remembered by all. He and my grandmother, an inseparable team for 63 years, left the world a better place than they found it. Although I don’t share his faith, he was deeply influential in the development of my morals, character, and interests.
Though I have known personal losses, I have cried more for him than for any other. I do not believe in life after death; I will never see him again. We can, however, keep a memory alive through stories, photographs, and actions, just as he lived his life. I can tell others about him; I can keep the images that remind me of all that we did together; I can live my life in a way that respects his. Most of all, I can be grateful, shedding both tears of sadness for our loss, and tears of happiness that I had the privilege and honor to know and be influenced by this great man. Thank you, William H. Olson, for the mark you left on the world and the legacy I am grateful to continue. I will never forget you.
A memorial service was held today in Minnesota, with another to follow in Mississippi. A shortened version of this piece was and will be read at both. The photo above shows him on his native lakes, in earlier days. The photo below shows me, just a few years ago, also in the Boundary Waters. Both were reprinted on the memorial service program, offering proof of the legacy he built and left behind.