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Headstrong Olson left her mark on area

August 19, 2011
Jenn Brookens - Staff Writer , Fairmont Sentinel

TRIMONT - Katy Olson is remembered as a supporter of education, a tireless worker and as someone always on the go.

Those who knew her also recall her candor, and her ability to make whomever she was in contact with feel like the most important person in the world.

As her husband and five children gather days after Olson's sudden death on Sunday, many stories about her surface.

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"She made no bones telling what she thought," said Robin White, one of her daughters. "But we were not allowed to judge. She always made sure that none of us felt like we were any better or any worse than anyone else. We were all equal."

Olson was a pioneer of sorts in her time, from defying her father to finish school and even attend college, to becoming the first woman elected to the Legislature from District 28B. But you did not call her a feminist or "women's libber."

"I remember when a woman made it onto the Trimont Fire Department, and there was all this talk about women's lib," White said. "I didn't even know what that was all about, because our mom had always taught us we were all equal."

Olson was born Oct. 24, 1928, to Cornelius and Cornelia (Bakker) Gaalswyk. Her headstrong spirit and desire for education soon made itself known.

"She wanted to go to school, and at that time it was common for kids to be taken out of school after a certain age to work on the farm," said Cindy Sinn, Olson's eldest daughter. "Well, she said she was going to school; her father said, 'No, you're not,' and she snuck away to school anyway. When she got home, her father beat her and asked, 'You're not going to do that again, are you?' and she said, 'Oh yes, I am.' That continued every day until he finally gave up."

She graduated from Trimont High School in 1946, and spent some time at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. She married a longtime childhood friend, Bob Olson, on Nov. 13, 1948.

"I remember meeting this skinny kid," Olson said of his future wife. "She had a bowl haircut and I couldn't tell if that was a boy or a girl, and I remember thinking, 'I want to go play with that boy.' Then we were playing around ever since."

Even as she farmed side by side with her husband - "Don't ever say 'farmer's wife,'" warn her children - education was still a large part of her life.

"I think it started when the first of us went to kindergarten," said daughter Amy Bloomquist. "They wanted her in the rural schoolhouse and our mother wondered why she couldn't go to school in town."

This steered Olson toward the PTA, which she soon managed to reshape.

"When she became president of the PTA, the principal told her not to worry, that it was just a ladies tea," Bloomquist said. "Then she said, 'Well, we'll have to change that.'"

"She created a group from there that made it a point to go and cover every school board meeting," said Olson's niece Char Kahler.

Olson received a lifetime membership award from the state for her 12 years of PTA work, but soon enough she was eyeing the school board.

"She was defeated in her first run and she was devastated," said her son Kent Olson. "But it didn't stop her from trying again."

The second time, she was successful, spending 10 years on the Trimont School Board. She was also a charter member of the Rural School Board Association, an organization started for Minnesota rural school boards to join forces and to fight to make sure rural schools and metro schools had equitable funding.

As she continued championing rural education, she realized the problems needed to be tackled at the state level.

"As an advocate, she went up to St. Paul, and she said, 'I knew way more about it than those people did. We need someone who knows about it,'" Kahler said.

Olson ran on the DFL ticket and lost her first run.

"It was tough because she was a woman, she was DFL, and she wasn't known in the party," Kahler said.

But she tried again, and won in 1986, becoming the first woman elected from 28B. She was re-elected for three more terms before retiring in 1994.

"She was vice-chair of the education committee, and she was also on the EDA, the ag committee, transportation and energy," said her daughter, Shirley Pooley. "She was the vice chair because she knew what she was talking about."

Kahler stayed in St. Paul with Olson while she was in office.

"It worked out great, we had support for each other, we were housemates," Kahler recalled. "She gained a lot of respect because she was open-minded and caring about others. She took some hard hits on some votes because she didn't always toe the party lines and there were some consequences for that. But she was respected. She never backed down, but she was always willing to listen to the other side. She had an ability to relate to everyone, and she gained respect from both sides for that."

Olson was inducted into the DFL Women's Hall of Fame in 2002, but her mind and spirit didn't completely retire from politics.

"Whenever she talked to someone regarding politics, she would say, 'You should run,'" Kahler said.

She loved to debate, especially with family friend Jim Scholl.

"She always had an opinion," Scholl said. "If you disagreed, it was OK, but you weren't going to change her mind. I remember I would try to get her angry, but you couldn't. That woman never lost control."

However, family and friends always came first for Olson.

"She was an organizer," Bloomquist said. "She was always organizing the family events, ski trips, snowmobiling trips, motorcycle trips, fishing trips, traveling with friends."

"But she was never too busy to be a friend," Pooley said.

All the children recall their own peers bonding with Olson, mentioning stories of Olson going out and snowmobiling with a group of teens, and outlasting them in the winter cold.

"I remembered I'd see someone come over and think they came to see me, and then it's, 'Oh, you're here to see my mom,'" Bloomquist said.

"She was also very humble," Pooley said. "It was never about her, it was about her causes and the children. Her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren."

"She lived one heck of a life," said her husband Bob. "A busy, exciting life."



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