Florence Olson, an advocate for recycling before most people had ever heard of such a thing, liked to call herself the “Garbage Queen.”
Others called her a lioness and a mama bear — labels that could have applied to her thoughtful approach to raising children, her insistence on upholding strong values, or perhaps just her larger-than-life character.
“She had a big personality and moved in the world that way,” said her daughter, Shannon, of St. Paul. “She was just really a special person, an interesting person, a strong-willed person with lots of opinions.”
Olson died June 3 of Alzheimer’s disease at her home in Chaska. She was 83.
As a member of the Chaska City Council from 1991 to 1998, Olson was “a calming influence” during a turbulent period as the small town grew into an expanding suburb, said former Mayor Bob Roepke.
“She was not intimidated by anything,” Roepke said. “There were some tough meetings. She was a good person to have at a time when we were going through that change.”
Olson was active as a volunteer in Chaska for decades and served on the city’s Planning Commission, as well as the City Council. She also served on the Metropolitan Council’s Solid Waste Advisory Committee in the 1980s and the Carver County Solid Waste Advisory Committee in the early 2000s.
A native of Gaylord, Minn., she moved with her family to Willmar, where she met her future husband, Richard Olson. She studied education at the University of Minnesota and spent several years teaching economics in California before returning to Minnesota to get married. The couple loved Carver County’s rolling hills and woods, so they moved to Chaska. They raised their three children in a house surrounded by farms, where she could watch the neighbor’s dairy cows pass by.
“I remember coming home from school and my mom would say, ‘The cows are out today,’ ” said her son, Kevin, of Irvine, Calif. When the cows were let out to pasture, the family knew spring had arrived: “They would run the whole thing back and forth, they were so happy to be out.”
When Olson wanted to recycle household items in the early 1970s, Chaska had no system for recycling. So she helped set up a collection center in an old church garage. As a member of the League of Women Voters, she encouraged residents to drop off newspapers, cans and bottles.
Kevin Olson said he remembers his mother rinsing out 55-gallon cardboard barrels used to ship meat, spray-painting them in lively colors and setting them out as recycling bins at public events.
She loved nature, animals and art, and frequently took her children on visits to the nearby Minnesota Landscape Arboretum and art museums. She hung postcards and pieces of art at a child’s eye level.
“I’m just so glad for the upbringing she gave us,” said Shannon Olson, who called her mother nearly every day as her illness progressed. “I so missed our conversations.”
Shannon Olson wrote two critically praised novels that were semi-fictionalized accounts of her own early adulthood, “Welcome to My Planet: Where English Is Sometimes Spoken” in 2001, and “Children of God Go Bowling” in 2005. She modeled the protagonist’s mother, Flo, after her own mother, who also was called Flo. When Shannon brought her mother to a reading at a local book store, audience members would get both of them to sign her book. Author and former radio host Garrison Keillor called Florence Olson “one of the great moms of American fiction.”
Besides Shannon and Kevin, she is survived by her husband, Richard, of Chaska; daughter Mikaela Vanderperren of Portland, Ore.; and three grandchildren. Services have been held.