He could light up a room with his trademark cackling laugh, after feigning anger with some bellowing command as the self-proclaimed “warden” of Creston High School.
On Sept. 19, 2012, Curt Olson finally met the only obstacle he couldn’t conquer in his relentless effort to make Creston High School, and the community of Creston, a better place.
Olson, 68, died that day from effects of a massive stroke suffered a few days earlier. Earlier in the year, a committee had selected Olson to be inducted into the Creston Community Schools Hall of Fame as a distinguished faculty member.
Because of the timing of his death and the family’s attention focused on those arrangements, the full induction of Olson into the Hall of Fame was delayed a year. His wife, Beth, will accept the honor during ceremonies at 12:15 p.m. Friday in the Creston High School auditorium.
Olson was Creston High School assistant principal and activities director for 22 years before retiring in 2004. After that, he worked as a transport officer for the Union County Sheriff’s Department.
During his tenure at CHS, he was a past president of the Iowa High School Athletic Directors Association and was a finalist for the National Athletic Director of the Year Award in 1994 while serving as Iowa’s State Athletic Director of the Year.
Olson was recognized for his work in helping students stay in school, and find assistance they needed. He was also a coach of several sports in the Creston district, and was still serving as a volunteer coach for the eighth-grade football team at the time of his death.
“One of dad’s heroes was his college football coach,” said son Matt Olson. “He always told pop he’d make a great junior high coach because of his solid fundamentals and work ethic. Dad told me once how much it meant to him to honor his hero by finally doing it.”
Olson worked tirelessly for CHS activities, and as a disciplinarian with a passion for helping struggling kids stay in school. At his funeral in the same CHS gymnasium that “Oly” worked so many hours as an administrator, Matt Olson thanked the community for allowing his father to enjoy his work.
“From the day he set foot there at the old ‘Pit,’ with Ron Levine, he dug in and went to work,” Matt said. “He was allowed by the community to do what he needed to do to make that place run. Without that support, he would have looked to move on.”
Matt said his father deserves the Hall of Fame honor.
“He wasn’t one of those guys who gets recognition because of giving a lot of money or something,” Matt said. “His currency was time. He gave a lot of time, and he’s earned this. That was always the way he told us to do things — earn it, or you don’t deserve it.”
The mindset of earning success without making excuses came early for Curt Olson, who suffered a minor stroke as an infant, which affected his left side. He walked with a limp, yet grew up working as hard as anyone else on the family farm near Manilla, and earned an opportunity to play football at Buena Vista in Storm Lake.
Since he was told as a youngster he had too many physical limitations to be a full-time farmer, he pursued an education, and ended up with a bachelor’s degree from Buena Vista, master’s from the University of Nebraska at Omaha and an Educational Specialist degree from Northwest Missouri State University.
He followed his passions of athletics and education initially at Pomeroy. He moved to Charter Oak-Ute in 1968. As head football coach there, his team had a 31-game winning streak from 1969-71. That was before the state playoffs began in 1972.
Olson began a 30-year career as an athletic director at Charter Oak-Ute, and later did the same at Maple Valley of Mapleton, before moving to Creston in 1982.
“He had his own growly way, but he’d take young people under his wing and encourage them to stay in school, to do their school work,” said Ron Levine, who was CHS principal when Olson was hired. Together, they organized the move from the existing high school building to the “new” current site on Townline Street during the 1989-90 school year.
Olson’s drive for success in both athletics and sportsmanship reached a pinnacle in 1997, when Creston not only won the boys state basketball championship in Class 3A, but also the sportsmanship award. “Oly” broke down in tears with the cheerleaders when the trophy was presented in Veterans Memorial Auditorium.
“He was so proud, as was I, to win not only the boys basketball tournament, but also the sportsmanship award,” said Chris Duree, then principal at CHS. “To win the championship with the highest degree of class, that’s what we wanted for the community, and for our students.”
Duree, now chancellor of Iowa Valley Community College district (Marshalltown and Ellsworth), said Olson had a knack for motivating students who appeared to be slipping through the cracks.
“We did everything in our power to keep kids in school,” Duree said. “Oly had a way of reaching out to a lot of different students. He’d find the connecting point with the student to keep them in school and be successful. He was a fatherly, or grandfatherly figure. If they knew somebody cared about them, a lot of times they’d stay in school.”
His wife, Beth, said many of her husband’s gestures on behalf of kids went unnoticed. As flamboyant as Olson was when he entered a room, he wasn’t inclined to seek attention for guiding a child toward the right path.
“He went to houses to get kids out of bed to go to school,” Beth said. “He felt it was the responsibility of him and the teachers to get every kid an education, whether they wanted it or not.”
As activities director, there weren’t many leisurely nights at home.
“He loved every aspect of it,” Beth said. “He was home maybe on Sunday, and some Wednesday nights. There were a lot of Saturdays where, if a kid needed a ride to Council Bluffs for instrumental music or for speech, and nobody would take them, he would take them. Curt never did anything to get patted on the back.”
Beth said Curt was appreciative of his opportunities in life, because he considered himself a “miracle baby” for having survived the medical trauma of his infancy. The greatest gifts from his parents came from not being coddled, he once told her.
“I remember him telling me how his dad and mom never treated him special,” Beth said. “They’d make him stretch his legs, do all kinds of things to feel better, because he was expected to help out around the farm like anyone else.”
Curt had a light stroke before retiring, and Beth worried about him. But he wanted to be an activities director for 30 years, a goal he attained.
“He loved the kids, and said he had the greatest job in the world,” Beth said. “I told him he should quit, but he worried about what would happen to ‘his guys.’ He did everything in life that people told him he couldn’t do, whereas in society now we sit and whine about stuff.
“This man fought every inch of his life to do what he did.”
Thursday: Thelda (Bender) Williams, longtime Phoenix, Ariz., councilwoman and former interim mayor, inducted as Distinguished Alumni.