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Bob Olson was a quiet fellow who cataloged books for a living before he retired to the same modest, well-kept two-story home that his parents owned before him in the Seward neighborhood of Minneapolis.
He was frugal, too, a guy who had extra jeans and underwear stockpiled upstairs, still in the packages they were purchased in. He didn't drive, getting around by bike or taxi.
But since his death last summer at age 82, Robert J. Olson is making a big impact -- especially on two neighboring households to whom he bequeathed $50,000 each, evidently for the small kindnesses they'd shown him in his final years.
And those are the smallest of his gifts. The University of Minnesota libraries -- where the heirless Olson worked for 23 years -- stand to get several hundred thousand dollars, depending on his estate's worth. Olson earmarked another $50,000 for the foundation that supports Hennepin County's libraries.
He also willed an unrestricted gift of $100,000 to the city of Minneapolis, something city officials say rarely happens.
Patrick Born said he can't remember any such gifts in his nine years overseeing the city's finances. "We have a little different arrangement with our donors," Born said, a droll reference to property taxation. "It's not voluntary, so most of them don't feel obligated to give again."
"That sure is Bob, though," said neighbor Leon Harder, a retired city worker, who said Olson appreciated city trash and street services.
Harder lived two doors down from Olson, but said he didn't know until a reporter told him this week that he was one of the neighbors to whom Olson left $50,000.
"Oh, good grief, I didn't know that. I had no idea," he said softly. "I don't know what to say."
Bruce Simpson and Lisa Rovick, who lived across the alley, also were named in Olson's will. Rovick and Simpson chatted across the alley with Olson. She grew raspberries and tomatoes and shared them with him. Simpson did some fix-up jobs for Olson and visited him during his final weeks at a care facility. Harder picked up groceries for Olson several times a week.
Of course, who gets what depends in part on how much Olson's estate -- valued at about $878,000 in the will -- actually yields. Stock prices have changed since he signed his will in a spidery hand shortly before he died, just days short of his 83rd birthday.
The house may be worth less in today's market than the $163,000 assessed value in the will. The value of securities that made up the bulk of the estate depends on what's happened to their prices since they were valued for the will. Bills for his care until he died of cancer likely will drive up the mere $10,000 in debt his will estimated.
"We just never know until you cut the check what his assets are going to support," said attorney Craig Goldman, who is handling the estate. The university library chunk, as the residual portion of the estate, will take the first hit from any shrinkage.
The money will come in handy for Simpson and Rovick. He's been out of work, she's interested in pursuing a doctorate and they have a daughter in college. Nevertheless, they did a double-take when they got an envelope bearing the name of a law office, wondering if they'd gotten into some kind of fix.
Olson's gift to the city doesn't surprise the couple. "He loved Minneapolis, and I can totally see him doing that," Rovick said.
Born, the finance chief, said, "I think it would be good for us to designate a purpose if we knew more about Mr. Olson. But he left no particular instructions."
Rovick and Goldman said something involving the neighborhood would be nice. Rovick said that would be particularly welcome after the recent triple homicide at a food market just down the street. Goldman said a bike path might be appropriate, given Olson's reliance on two wheels for transport.
"I hope that the money for the city doesn't just get buried in the budget," Rovick said.
Library catalogers such as Olson work behind the scenes, giving incoming materials a place in the library, both on the shelves and in the library catalog. Olson was a library science graduate of the university and also a South High School alumnus. Neighbors say he worked out east, perhaps at Yale, before joining the university staff. Although he had lived in Seward for decades, neighbors say he kept a low profile, except for calling the city when the rental house next door got too rowdy.
Jean Gorman lived down the block and chatted often with Olson. "He was a very conscientious property owner and took meticulous care of his house and yard," she said. Harder remembers the red geraniums and spider plants that Olson potted each spring beside his front steps.
He had a house filled with hundreds, perhaps several thousand, of books, and loved public broadcasting. Politically, he was a populist comfortable in the left-leaning Seward neighborhood.
"This guy had a brain on him," Harder recalled. "I could only say 'uh huh' because I didn't know what he was talking about."
Olson also represented an archetype that's fading from the neighborhood, Gorman said. "There were all these sort of Norwegian bachelor farmers in the neighborhood," she said. But most of the people Olson knew have moved away or died, neighbors say.
"Anything you did for him, he'd thank you for it," Harder recalled.
Now he knows just how much.
Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438