My grandfather, Johannes Ingebret Olsen passed away on September 1, 2014. He was the very best, and I was beyond fortunate and blessed to have had him in my life. Along with some of my cousins, my sister and brother, I was honored to speak and give this remembrance at his funeral service. I will miss him more than I can imagine, and more than I have yet to realize, I’m sure.
Johannes. John. Joe. Dr. Olsen. Student. Lieutenant. District Governor. President. Professor. Boss. Dad. Very rarely, hey you. Or, as I called him, Poppa.
He served in many influential roles, to many people. He was dedicated, generous, kind, stubborn (but in the good way – and I can relate), loving, spirited, and memorable.
For some reason, it’s rare for someone my age to have a long, rich relationship with their grandparents. Even more rare, a friendship. My 33+ years have certainly been better because Poppa was a big part of them. Even though I generally got to see him several times a year, it was normal to spend half an hour on the phone with Poppa and Gramma — and we’d cover all kinds of topics. Poppa knew something about most of them. Always thoughtful, he usually engaged. When he wasn’t as familiar with what we were discussing, he would ask questions, and when he had something to offer right away, he usually did – and he shot straight. Most often we agreed, but not always, and I guess that doesn’t mean he was wrong – and he’d likely confirm that if he were here. Quick to encourage, and just as quick to challenge, he was one of my biggest fans and supporters for as long as I can remember. Always genuinely interested in what I was doing personally, in various levels of school, sports, music, travel, or professionally, he was there to encourage, offer counsel, celebrate, laugh, and ask questions. I don’t have the details on everyone, but I know he served in this role for many people throughout his life.
As interested as he was in what I was doing, there was certainly no lack of reciprocation in his activity level. Whether it was leading Williamsville East High School, serving one of his many boards, Rotary, teaching, driving a few minutes or all across the country to see family and friends, playing the organ, starting a church or serving at one of many more, or spending the day with the love of his life, he was usually engaged in more than I was.
I know when he got there on that Monday night, St. Peter called his name, but given Poppa’s non-stop nature, by now I’m sure he has it memorized. There’s no doubt he has already gone back to the pearly gates a few times to ask directions to the business center, the organ, the library, and more. Tomorrow, he’ll likely find out what neighborhood all the Lutherans hang out in, so he can attend the right church. Next week, he’ll probably join the church council. For sure, he has signed up for the print edition of the paper, as there is no way he’s going to let a night pass without finishing the crossword. And if none of the rest of these is true, I do know he has eyes fixed on Gramma, all his children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. He will be watching with delight, just as he always has, to see what we all are doing. He was so proud of all of us – no matter what.
Amanda and I are expecting a son shortly. There will be few things he isn’t able to do that I wish more for him than that he could have met and gotten to know my grandfather. And maybe a little selfishly, I’d love to be able to hand the kid off to Poppa when I’m not sure what else to do with him – those of us who were children trying to test his patience know what I’m talking about. Children included, but aside for now, my grandfather commanded respect without asking for it. He could say more through actions and silence than anyone else I know. And respect is what he received from all who knew him. Anyone who has spent time with him has been enriched. Part of what kept his activity level so high is that I never knew him to start something he didn’t intend to finish. He would see things through, and if somebody else couldn’t get it done, he would. It didn’t matter how great or small, or what the context – that was his project and reputation on the line, and he made sure whatever the task, it was done with excellence.
I had the opportunity to see him demonstrate several examples of leadership, principle, honesty, and consistency. He made certainly not always the easiest choices or the most popular, or those without the least headache or repercussion – he made the hard decisions. If there was a league for sticking to your guns, he would have been its prizefighter.
A few I have certainly yet to master, but I hope I will be fortunate enough to pass on to my son these lessons that I learned from Poppa:
- Integrity is something that cannot be recognized unless it is earned.
- Follow through on the big and the small.
- Serve the community around you, and make it better.
- Shoot straight – beating around the bush doesn’t get you anywhere other than around the bush.
He never told me any of these things. He lived them. And like the natural leader he was, he helped the people around him find their version of better.
Lastly – and selfishly I really hope I can teach my son this one – when you get to your late sixties and early seventies, and you look so young and full of life that people think you are your grandson’s father, don’t deny it. Just roll with it….Poppa always did when we were together.
Many things will remind me of Poppa. Whenever I see a pair of L.L. Bean moccasins, someone working on the crossword in a newspaper, adding ice to his bloss until it’s only water, displaying a Norwegian flag or Rotary sticker on their car (I used to think all the cars from the Buick dealership came with those already put on), or sitting at the head of a huge family table, I’ll think of Poppa. But, these are pictures. It’s the conversations, the example, and the support I’ll keep with me.
There is a Hagar the Horrible comic strip that has been on the fridge in my parent’s house as long as I can remember. Poppa was an American through and through, but he was all Norwegian too. This comic paints a pretty good picture of Poppa’s sense of humor.
Hagar is standing with a younger boy and says: If people ask you, tell them you’re a Viking.
The boy says: And a Norwegian?
Hagar responds with: No, you don’t have to tell them that…..
It might sounds like ‘bragging.’
I know you never would have Poppa, but it was my honor to brag about you today.
The Buffalo News article remembering my grandfather.