Katherine's light still burning bright

  • Article by: ABBY SIMONS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 3, 2008 - 11:34 PM

Katherine Ann Olson's relatives refuse to let her shooting death one year ago define them. They have started a scholarship fund and joined forces with Craigslist for a benefit concert.

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Rolf and Nancy Olson’s response to the shooting death of their daughter has been nothing but inspirational, Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster said. After meeting the Olsons, shown above, Buckmaster said he felt compelled to get involved to help set up a legacy for Katherine.

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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The grief comes in many shades for those with the largest hole in their hearts in the year since Katherine Ann Olson was killed.

Rolf Olson sheds at least a tear every day, be it from the notes of kindness and support that come from all corners of the world or from tragedies in the local news, which bring him back to the day he learned his rambunctious middle daughter was dead.

Nancy Olson's grief comes in a volcanic rage that erupts when she drives down the street and remembers that a complete stranger took her daughter's life and that Katherine -- the girl who left a trail of stuff everywhere she went and who did yoga in truck-stop parking lots -- won't be coming home.

And for her sister, Sarah Richter, who laughs when remembering how her Katherine chopped her curly locks herself rather than pay for a haircut, there's a silence she desperately tries to fill at all times.

But while the grief varies for each of them, there is one thing they will not let it do.

"When someone is murdered, the risk is that they're defined by their death. We won't let it define Katherine," said Rolf Olson, a Lutheran pastor. "She was the girl who looked like sunshine. Not the girl who was killed by answering a Craiglist ad."

No one knows why Michael John Anderson, 20, allegedly lured Olson, 24, to his Savage home Oct. 25, 2007, when she answered a Craigslist ad for a baby sitter, then shot her in the back before hiding her body in the trunk of her car. A trial is scheduled for sometime next year.

The randomness of the killing and the fact that Olson and Anderson connected over a popular website made the news around the country and prompted warnings for users of such sites to be more cautious. Now, Craiglist is helping the Olsons pay tribute to Katherine via a benefit concert next year.

Set for spring 2009, "A Tribute to Katherine: Letting Her Light Shine," will include acts Romantica, Storyhill and the Latin-themed theatre group Teatro Del Pueblo. It will benefit a scholarship already established in her name at St. Olaf College, Olson's alma mater.

In the spirit of Olson's passion, the Katherine Ann Olson Memorial Scholarship Fund benefits Hispanic students and is designed to counter the growing number of undereducated Hispanics in Minnesota, as their population in the region continues to grow. The fund has already raised more than $53,000 and is already helping students. The annual endowment to students is designed to last as long as the funding is met.

The Olsons, who also have a son, Karl, 22, in Montana, hope that will be forever.

"She loved educating Latino youth," said Richter, who is spearheading the benefit concert as part of her MBA studies at the University of St. Thomas. "It's so important that people will benefit, even in her death."

The Olsons say they don't blame Craigslist for Katherine's death, but have instead embraced the company and its willingness to memorialize their daughter. Craigslist has donated a sizable amount to the scholarship, though it won't say how much, and company representatives have supported Richter's efforts to plan the concert. Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster said this week that though Olson's slaying is the only one of its kind, the website responded by highlighting safety tips in prominent links throughout the page. He said the company felt compelled to get involved after meeting the Olsons.

"We were devastated to learn what had happened to Katherine and deeply saddened for the Olson family," he said in an e-mail. "Their response to the tragedy has been inspirational, and we are honored that the Olsons have invited us to partner with them in celebrating Katherine's memory."

In the meantime, the year has been a whirlwind for the family. They have appeared on NBC's "Today" show and been contacted by thousands of people who heard of the story and sent condolences or have been somehow touched by Katherine's life.

Nancy Olson said that the year's positive events have, in their own quirky way, been her daughter's personality shining through. It was something they noted as they lit a candle for her, appropriately, on All Saints Day.

"There's just this interesting, surreal quality to our lives," she said. "But we'd gladly chuck it all in a minute to have our daughter back."

Abby Simons • 612-673-4921

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