You know how you always remember where you were when you heard some major news? The feeling of where you were at exactly that moment just stays with you?
That happened to me Monday afternoon. I was sitting at our photo computer station, and Publisher Rich Paulsen asked if I knew Curt Olson had a massive stroke over the weekend. The outlook wasn’t every encouraging.
What a gut shot. My first reaction was extreme anger at myself. You see, I am in charge of interviews for the stories on inductees to the Creston Schools Hall of Fame at CHS homecoming. I had done two interviews last week, and planned to interview “Oly” this week.
I looked forward to rehashing old stories, and getting his reaction to being honored by the community he served for 22 years. Of course, we would needle each other. I would have told him we would likely have to cut off his induction speech for running over the time limit. But, no doubt it would be the most entertaining we’ve ever had.
Now, that wouldn’t happen. We all prayed this week for the miracle that didn’t come.
Curt Olson’s life began and ended in the same fashion. He had a minor stroke as an infant, which affected his left side. He walked with a limp, which earned him the nickname “Chester,” after the character with a disability in the TV show, “Gunsmoke.”
But, growing up on a farm near Manilla, his father gave him the greatest lesson, which Curt carried on to others during his career. No excuses. He was expected to chip in and work around the farm just like everybody else.
He was a big man — 6-foot-4 and probably 350 pounds when I first met him in 1984 — and he had an opportunity to play football at Buena Vista College in Storm Lake, despite his limitations.
He arrived on campus in the fall of 1963 along with Rick Wulkow, now executive director of the Iowa High School Athletic Association. Wulkow played football, baseball and basketball there. Olson was student manager for basketball and baseball.
“We became very close friends,” Wulkow said. “He was a defensive tackle. He played right tackle, so he could strong-arm to the outside to his good side. Despite this childhood affliction, he still had the courage and strength to play college football.”
Like everyone else, Wulkow said he has “a zillion Curt Olson stories.” This one, in particular, he’ll never forget:
“We were playing at William Penn, down in Mount Pleasant,” Wulkow said. “It was a wet night, and coach was substituting for Oly, so he comes running off the field. They had a snowfence behind the bench, to keep spectators away. Curt’s dragging that leg, going full speed for him, and when he tried to stop, his feet went out from under him. He went sliding and took out about 10 yards of that fence!”
The work ethic Olson developed on the farm carried over to campus life. He took on several jobs, despite his busy load in athletics and attending classes.
“The guy would get up at 5 a.m. and deliver newspapers, then work for the maintenance department and be out scooping snow before class,” Wulkow said. “He was always doing additional work, to get himself through school.”
After starting his career in Pomeroy, Curt moved to Charter Oak-Ute in 1968. As head football coach there, his team once had a winning streak in excess of 30 games. This was before the state playoffs began in 1972.
He began his career as an athletic director there, and did the same at Maple Valley in Mapleton until moving to Creston in 1982. He became assistant principal and succeeded Bill Nielsen as athletic director.
Ron Levine, now 85, was CHS principal then and knew Olson from way back. Levine was principal in Schleswig, which was an arch rival of Charter Oak-Ute, when Olson was there.
Levine was a quiet, but firm leader with high standards. Olson shared many of the same philosophies — except the quiet part.
“He called a spade a spade, and he enjoyed the attention,” Levine said. “You couldn’t miss him.”
KSIB’s Gary Bucklin and I arrived here about the same time in the mid-1980s and we’ve both known Oly for roughly 30 years. Bucklin made an astute comparison, likening him to legendary baseball broadcaster Harry Caray.
“Just like Harry Caray, when he walked in a room, he lit up the place and he owned the room,” Bucklin said. “Everybody knew when Oly got there.”
For a couple of seasons, Bucklin and Olson traveled together broadcasting high school games on Friday nights.
“Tell you what, you try to put Curt and me into some of those little press box booths, like the old one at Glenwood, and it was like squeezing two sardines into a thimble!” Bucklin said, laughing. “He would watch the linemen and tell what they were doing. But I couldn’t get him to keep any stats!”
At a state track meet, Bucklin made Wulkow double up in laughter, telling the famed “Officer down!” story involving Olson.
After retiring from CHS in 2004, and a brief, not totally successful venture trying to operate a tractor mower for the city of Creston, Olson became a part-time employee for Sheriff Rick Piel as a transport officer. He’d haul prisoners to various institutions and court appearances, sometimes referring to them as “my guys from school.”
On one of those trips, Olson’s sheriff’s vehicle had a flat tire on Interstate 80 in Dallas County. Piel tells the story:
“You know how most people would just stand up and put the jack under the side of the car to lift it up?” Piel said. “Not Oly. He’s underneath the car, trying to line up the jack under the axel. Meanwhile, somebody drives by sees his legs sticking out, and calls 911.
“Oly’s under there working, and he hears the siren and a deputy’s car approaching with lights flashing. Oly thinks the guy must really be in a hurry to get somewhere. All of a sudden, the car stops right behind him, and the deputy rushes over to ask him if he’s OK.”
“YEAH!” Olson bellowed. “I just got a flat tire!”
“We got a call of officer down,” the deputy explained. State troopers, local police, every available officer in the area was about to descend on the scene to assist this fallen officer.
Of course, Oly being Oly, rather than be embarrassed by that story, he soaked it up. He could laugh at himself with that big high-pitched cackle as much as he could at anything else.
His style wasn’t careful and calculating, and occasionally there were disputes to his position in trying to maintain discipline in the school. Nobody’s perfect. He’d barge right into a classroom to retrieve a kid he needed to talk to, regardless of what the teacher was in the middle of doing. A bull-in-a-China shop style.
But, he had a knack of reaching kids about to slip through the cracks. Oly “saved” many would-be dropouts and steered them to a better life by gaining their diploma. It was a knack through tough love.
“He would get his message across,” Wulkow said. “He could give you hell in a good way, and when you were done, everybody was laughing about it. It was a unique way of communicating.”
Levine concurred, likening him in some ways to former Creston Junior High Principal Russell Hobbs, who passed away earlier this year.
“What some people really didn’t know, is that they were both soft-hearted,” Levine said. “Some of his discipline was probably achieved through fear. He could be growly with them. But, he’d take young people under his wing and encourage them to stay in school, to do their school work. He made them realize they were important people.”
As an athletic director, Oly took Levine’s direction seriously to attend to details of event management, to the point that Wulkow said the IHSAA could always trust Creston to be a good district tournament host. Oly also patroled the sidelines to keep kids in line.
“He was excellent in crowd management, and I felt that was important,” Levine said. “We wanted folks to think we had halfway decent people around here.”
The sportsmanship effort reached a pinnacle in 1997, when Creston not only won the boys state basketball championship, but the sportsmanship award in Class 3A. Oly broke down emotionally with the cheerleaders when the trophy was presented.
“Sportsmanship meant a lot to him,” Levine said.
Two Olson traditions continued into retirement — an amazing Christmas light display by Curt and wife Beth each winter; and his unwavering love of football. Even this fall, at age 68, he continued to assist the eighth-grade team, particularly as a line coach.
Kristopher Hayes and Billy Hiatt are now the coaches, and their task Thursday was to take a group of young men up to Atlantic for a game, on the same day they learned of Oly’s death. In practice all week, they feared the worst.
“It has been a tough week,” Hayes said. “Our eighth-grade group, like numerous others, has a deep connection to coach Olson. I am humbled by the fact that Curt and I got to know each other, although briefly. Our team has discussed how much coach Olson has meant to the entire athletic program at Creston High School over the years. We wanted to represent what coach Olson was about. Coach Olson would want these kids to get on the bus and take care of business at Atlantic.”
Final score Thursday afternoon: Creston/O-M 53, Atlantic 6. The B team won 14-0. Those kids displayed heart and desire as a tribute to their fallen coach.
Even to the end, Oly was pushing kids to do more than they realized they could.
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