More modest than your average Minnesotan

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 25, 2012 - 9:46 PM

Cindy Olson

Cindy Olson is Minnesota Modest to the core.

If some people helped strangers in other countries get reconstructive surgery, inspired pop songs and helped start a major company whose work is known to millions, they'd crow.

She does sound a bit proud about being an official Excelsior Booster Club member. "There are only two of us," she chuckles.

When not boosting, she steps into her secret identity: "I feel like a stay-at-home mom who jumps into a phone booth and spins around to change, then comes out to fly to a board meeting or do a radio show."

She's on KTIS Friday noon with Julie Nelson, and she sits on the board of the Smile Network. It's one of those philanthropic institutions with which Minnesota abounds, but you may not have heard about this:

"They fund life-saving surgeries in other countries for people with cleft palates. But they also bring individuals along not just to support the missions, but to work with the patient's family. Then they top it off with a unique experience in that particular country, like going to Machu Picchu in Peru. It's philanthropy mixed with adventure travel."

Sounds fun and uplifting and all that, but, OK, GET TO THE POP SONG thing.

"Before I left college, I was dating someone who was a songwriter and producer. Well, that relationship took its course, and he went on to write some songs that were about the relationship."

Anyone sing them?

"Paula Abdul." Cough. What did you do, dump him for MC Scat Kat?

"That's when I started listening to talk radio," she laughed. "It made it hard to listen to music radio. It's not like 'oh, that was our song!' -- that was our song."

Well, that was the '80s. In the '90s, Cindy and her husband built Olson Advertising, a company with clients like the Wild and Subway and Target and Ford. She attributes its success in part to the "amazing swirl of creative" Minneapolis can generate. But we're not Madison Avenue.

"Minnesota still has a wilderness feeling, the sense that it's not finished, it's not done. New ideas and uniqueness is still appreciated, and everything can change -- I mean, you have a Jesse Ventura, and you can have a Tim Pawlenty. There's a work ethic I don't sense when I'm in different parts of the country -- but when you get near Friday, it's kick-up-your-heels, no holds barred. We're yin and yang -- hardworking and gray, then sunny and fun."

Yin and yang sounds more Minnesotan if you use an Ole-and-Lena accent, by the way. But surely we're not perfect.

"It can be hard to get to know people here, like there's a historic cap on people's number of friends. I'd make it mandatory for people to talk to at least three people a month who didn't go to their high school."

Not a bad idea! And no, talking back to Jared on the Subway TV ads doesn't count.


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