Obituary: Paul Olson strove to help others in wheelchairs

  • Article by: NICOLE NORFLEET , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 6, 2012 - 8:06 PM

To outdoors enthusiast Paul Olson, the beauty of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers with their alternating views of wildlife and bustling industry was meant to be appreciated by and accessible to anyone and everyone -- even if you happened to use a wheelchair.

After an accident left him paralyzed, Olson spent the last decade of his life helping others around the Twin Cities with disabilities enjoy the freedom of the outdoors. Olson died Oct. 2 from pneumonia. He was 69.

Olson was the youngest of four children. He grew up in Carver, Minn., in a home without indoor plumbing or electricity, where light came from kerosene lanterns and heat from "a large and beautiful wood-fired kitchen stove," according to a speech that Olson wrote for the 50th reunion of his high school class.

"I loved our home on the hillside," he wrote. "Butternuts, asparagus, rhubarb, raspberries, strawberries, highbush cranberries, grapes and mint all flourished within 75 feet of the house."

Fish and crawfish were plentiful in a nearby creek. A half-acre garden provided a variety of vegetables, some of which his family would sell at market, he wrote. Olson spent a part of his youth trapping minks and muskrats and selling the pelts. He also helped his father package snacks before heading off to school in the morning.

After Olson graduated from Chaska High School, he served in the Army during the Vietnam War era, his daughter Lisa Zena said. Afterward, he ended up getting his captain's license and sailed in Florida. He also started a hydro bike business, Zena said. Olson went on to work in construction in Minnesota.

In 1999, he was working on the roof of his mother's shed when he fell and bruised his spinal cord, rendering him a quadriplegic who would always need a wheelchair, Zena said.

Despite the accident, Olson remained mostly positive, said friend Steve Gardner.

"He was always trying to find out ways to do stuff for people in wheelchairs," Gardner said.

Along with someone he had met at the Courage Center who has since passed away, Olson founded Freedom in Wheelchairs Inc. in 2002. The group offers free trips on a wheelchair-accessible pontoon boat up and down the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers along with other activities.

"If you live with a disability, you know how difficult and expensive it can be to have the special experiences that make life just a little better," the group's website says.

Jessica Ellingson, who lived in the same accessible apartment complex in Hopkins as Olson, said her first trip on the boat was from the Watergate Marina in St. Paul.

"It was nice," she said. "It was very peaceful."

Being out on the water always cheered Olson up, Ellingson said.

Dean Petersen, Olson's personal care attendant, agreed. "He really, really enjoyed the outdoors. He loved the water," Petersen said.

Olson suffered from constant pain, Petersen said. Still, he persevered and continued to pursue ideas to help those with disabilities, Petersen said. For example, he was working to patent a hydro bike that people with disabilities could use.

"He had so many things going. You can only do so much," Petersen said.

Olson is survived by his daughter, two grandchildren and two siblings. His memorial service is scheduled for Oct. 13 at the Bertas Funeral Home in Chaska.

Nicole Norfleet • 612-673-4495; Twitter: @stribnorfleet

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