Olsen: educator, legislator, lecturer (Third of three parts)

Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 28, 2002

John W. Olsen has the distinction of going from the status of immigrant farm hand to becoming the top educator in Freeborn County, then in the entire state during his lifetime.

He was born during 1864 in Copenhagen, Denmark. At the age of seven his family moved to Freeborn County. The Olsens lived for a time in what was called a &uot;farm dugout&uot; home about 10 miles north of Albert Lea.

His early schooling was rather sketchy and had to fit in with assigned chores such as being a sheep boy and farm hand.

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However, he quickly became very proficient in the English language. This was confirmed in statements made to a Minneapolis Star columnist which were printed in &uot;Town Toppers&uot; in the May 16, 1956, issue.

&uot;By the time I was 10, I had spelled down three school teachers,&uot; Olsen told the columnist.

&uot;One reason, Olsen admits, was that he had the only dictionary in the vicinity. Not even the teacher or minister had one,&uot; the columnist reported.

He graduated from Valparaiso University in Indiana and returned to Freeborn County to teach in rural schools. Several biographical sketches say Olsen was principal at both Alden and Glenville. However, it isn’t clear as to whether he held both positions at the same time, or in sequence.

About 1889 or 1890, Olsen decided to study law for a year. He may have an intention to become a lawyer. This changed later in 1890 when Olsen was elected to serve as Freeborn County Superintendent of Schools.

He served in this county office for 10 years. Then, in 1901, he became the Minnesota State Superintendent of Schools. During his eight years as the state’s top educator in St. Paul, Olsen advocated a plan for consolidating rural schools in Minnesota. What he suggested would take years to become


Olsen was appointed dean of the agriculture department at the University of Minnesota in 1908 and served in this post for nearly two years.

From 1901 to 1909 he was a regent of the University of Minnesota, and from 1900 to 1916 a trustee of Carlton College in Northfield.

The next occupation for Olsen was that of professional lecturer. He spoke to various groups on a variety of subjects and did his bookings through a Twin Cities speakers bureau, plus the Chautauqua circuit.

(The Chautauquas were traveling groups which operated in the nation from 1903 to 1930. They moved from town to town giving lectures, concerts recitals, shows and educational programs in tents. Their popularity decreased with the development of radio, talking movies, and other forms of entertainment.)

One publicity release said, &uot;He had studied not only books but life.&uot;

A man described as a well known judge and critic said, &uot;As a lecturer he has humor, a rich vocabulary, precision, purity of diction, clear enunciation without a foreign accent, pathos that plays upon the tenderest cords of the soul. He is freighted with thought and thought provoking. He has a purpose and moves directly forward by a straight line. He sets a noble task and strengthens the will to do it.&uot;

Olsen’s speech topics were based on &uot;What America Has Done For Me,&uot; educational themes, Old Mexico (where he had traveled several times to the southernmost tropical region), and commencement addresses.

His publicity material said &uot;Where he has a lyceum engagement Dean Olsen is always glad to address the schools without additional expense whenever train schedules permit. Dean Olsen is available for teachers’ conventions, institutes and commencements.&uot;

After World War II, in 1919 and 1920, he was employed by The American Committee of Minneapolis to debate Communist speakers.

In the early 1920s Olsen became involved in school supply and farm mortgage businesses. He retired in 1934, died in October 1959, and is buried in Hillside Cemetery, Minneapolis.