“Getting a D from him was bad,” Olson said of a teacher he has since thanked. “Getting a D and bringing it home to my mother and father was worse.”
For his part, the teacher didn’t see a D student. “You have the tools,” he told Olson.
Olson graduated from North Dakota State University in 1971. As a senior, he worked with a graduate student and a local firm on a federal engineering project, he said. When he still hadn’t landed a job with the firm by May 15 of his senior year, Olson cornered Kip Moore, the owner of Moore Engineering, and not so subtly asked, “Are you going to hire me or aren’t you?”
“I guess so,” Moore replied.
Olson said he worked at Moore, in West Fargo, for seven years before moving on to municipal work in Gaylord, Minn. Regardless of where he worked, he vowed to “keep your mouth shut and your eyes open because these guys were going to teach you what you need to know.”
But nothing could have prepared him for a sudden unraveling of his personal life.
Olson and his high school sweetheart, Sue, were married when he was 21 and she was 19. A few years later, they adopted a three-week-old girl, Jessica. He had a loving family, a good job, a fairy tale existence.
And then, after 10 years of marriage, Sue died of liver cancer.
Olson was devastated. But within his family, there was another broken heart to mend. His cousin Daniel Nielsen died in a deer-hunting accident. Olson ran into Carolyn, his cousin’s widow, at a family reunion.
“Yes, I know it’s the ultimate redneck cliché, but I met my wife at a family reunion,” Olson said.
They’ve been married 32 years.
Now, Olson prepares for the next chapter. He remembers vividly when people felt privileged to have all-weather roads, when public employees were viewed more favorably, when politics didn’t determine our daily essentials.
When Olson asked, in 2006, former Anoka County board chairman Dennis Berg and former County Administrator Terry Johnson, “Why doesn’t somebody organize a six-car wagon train that moves across the country, east to west?” he didn’t wait for an answer. He also put together a wagon train for Minnesota’s sesquicentennial.
Olson still attends re-enactments with other Mountain Men when possible and is proud to show photos of his daughter and his daughter-in-law in buckskin dresses he created. But Olson is no dinosaur. When he presents his résumé, he hands you a folder of DVDs.
As for his culinary venture, the man who says he never asked an employee to do something he wouldn’t do says he will never prepare a dish for a customer that he wouldn’t eat himself.
“Making my chicken or raw, fried potatoes,” he says with a grin, “never gets old.”