Nancy Olson, center, mother of Katherine Olson, hugged friends who attended the service.

Marlin Levison, Minneapolis Star Tribune

Katherine Olson's light shines on

  • Article by: ABBY SIMONS
  • Star Tribune
  • May 4, 2009 - 6:05 AM

Craigslist founder Craig Newmark stood before the thousand-plus people gathered Sunday to honor Katherine Olson, took a breath and introduced himself.

"I'm saddened that we met under these circumstances," he said, referring to the fact that Olson was slain after responding to a phony babysitting ad on Craigslist. "But I am truly inspired by Katherine's family and I extend my love and support to them."

Newmark described himself as "humbled and honored" to be part of the tribute to a vibrant young woman. When he ended his remarks, he handed a check to Olson's family. They embraced and he left the stage at Grace Church auditorium in Eden Prairie.

It was an emotional opening to the three-hour benefit, "A Tribute to Katherine: Letting Her Light Shine," to remember Olson and raise money for a scholarship for Latino students at her alma mater, St. Olaf College. More than 1,200 tickets were sold, with 100 percent of the proceeds going toward the scholarship. Concert organizers were still tallying the totals, but with the undisclosed donation from Craigslist and others, organizers were confident about reaching their goal of $100,000.

Despite the adverse publicity to Craigslist after Olson was killed, the company and its founder reached out to her family after the murder. The company's CEO, Jim Buckmaster, said last fall that they felt compelled to get involved with the fund-raiser after meeting her family, calling their response to the tragedy inspirational.

Newmark's appearance with Olson's family kicked off sets by musicians Ann Reed, Romantica and Storyhill, and a performance by Teatro del Pueblo. The tribute provided a sense of closure for her family, which had planned it over many months. It also took place one month after Michael John Anderson, 20, was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison for killing Olson after she responded to his online ad.

"Right now, I'm screamingly nervous, but we're excited for this," said Olson's mother, Nancy Olson. "We know that when it's over, it's really over, we must now face what is a new normal for our family."

The new normal for Olson's family includes a close bond with Newmark, who co-sponsored the benefit concert. The Olsons hold no ill will against Craiglist. The online service is simply a tool, Nancy Olson said, that Katherine Olson's killer happened to use for evil.

Olson, 24, had answered an ad in October 2007 for a baby sitter that Anderson had posted on Craigslist, posing as a woman named "Amy." When she arrived at the home, Anderson shot and killed her.

Newmark acknowledged that evil was possible, telling the crowd that he started the website 14 years ago with genuine community spirit in mind. The tragedy of Katherine Olson's death, and that of a woman shot to death in Boston last month by a man who targeted her by ads placed on the website, speak of rare but potential dangers that can be avoided with precaution, Newmark said.

"Despite the billions of times people have helped each other, evil does exist," Newmark said. "... It's really sad when anything bad happens, and I believe the only way to beat the darkness is focusing on the good in people."

The concert did just that. Giant video screens projected images of the curly-haired Olson hugging babies, smiling with her family in her graduation cap and gown, and mugging for the camera with her friends. Those who knew Olson laughed knowingly when Alberto Justiniano, director of Teatro del Pueblo, described Olson, a friend and volunteer, as "a little tornado."

The sheer numbers who turned out to honor his daughter's life made the Rev. Rolf Olson proud, but the pain still lingers. "We can't believe it's finally here, and we're pretty melancholy," he said. "We're sad our daughter is not with us to enjoy this, but the support and love around us are mind-blowing, and will help us get through the agony of this experience."

Olson's impact on those whose lives were touched was evident as the crowd joined folk artist Ann Reed in singing an a cappella version of the folk song "Only Remembered":

Only the truth that in life we have spoken,

Only the seeds that on Earth we have sown,

These shall pass onward while we are forgotten,

Only remembered for what we have done.

Abby Simons • 612-673-4921

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