2014-01-30 / Community

'A quiet giant'

Helen Olson’s leadership helped shape the growth of CLU
By Anna Bitong


TRAILBLAZER—Pictured at her 100th birthday party in October with daughter Eloise Cohen, Helen Olson was revered as a fervent community organizer who helped shape the future of California Lutheran University. Olson died Jan. 18. TRAILBLAZER—Pictured at her 100th birthday party in October with daughter Eloise Cohen, Helen Olson was revered as a fervent community organizer who helped shape the future of California Lutheran University. Olson died Jan. 18. Helen Olson, whose unexpected leadership helped transform a fledgling Cal Lutheran University into a thriving institution, died of natural causes Jan. 18 at the age of 100.

Her husband, Ray Olson, served from 1963 to 1971 as the second president of the school then called California Lutheran College. He died in 2006 at the age of 96.

“Back in those days, you needed special effort to get women involved,” said longtime family friend Howard Wennes, who twice served as CLU’s interim president. “Helen jumped in with a great spirit. She understood that to have a strong college you had to have a strong community and vice versa. She developed the potential of both.”

The Olsons, who were married for 69 years, met as students at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa. They moved to Thousand Oaks from Minneapolis in 1963, after Ray was appointed president of the college founded in 1959 by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Helen Olson, who had taught at a rural school in Illinois, soon immersed herself in bringing together the community at the 4-year-old college that was in need of funding. She hosted hundreds of campus events and dinners at her home for faculty, students, prospective donors and community leaders, according to her family.

“She was a quiet force that brought people together,” said daughter Eloise Cohen. “The ’60s were a tumultuous time on college campuses, even at Cal Lutheran. She had a sense of calm and peace about her.”

Amid a whirl of obstacles and change, Olson was a “quiet giant” who helped shape the future of CLU, Wennes said.


SUPPORTERS OF THE ARTS—Helen Olson and her husband, Ray, then president of CLU, attend an art show on campus in the mid-’60s. Helen Olson was a founding member of the Alliance for the Arts. SUPPORTERS OF THE ARTS—Helen Olson and her husband, Ray, then president of CLU, attend an art show on campus in the mid-’60s. Helen Olson was a founding member of the Alliance for the Arts. “ In those pivotal years, there were tough times trying to get the university established,” he said. “I admired the way Helen and Ray could spot the things that needed to be done and step up and make it happen.”

Helen Olson served as the first president of the Women’s League at the college and was on the founding board of the school’s Conejo Symphony League. She was also a founding member of the Conejo Historical Society and the Alliance for the Arts, which aided the development of a performing arts theater at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza. Like her father, who studied art at the University of Illinois, Olson embraced the arts and supported art and music programs at CLU.

The philanthropist established the Sarah and Thomas Hilleson Award for art students, named for her parents, and with her husband started the Raymond M. Olson Family Scholarship at CLU.

“She and my dad were like pioneers,” Cohen said. “They just recognized the importance of being fully involved in the community. They wanted to be a part of helping CLU become a reality.”

Olson was a descendant of Norwegian immigrants who came to the United States to farm in the 1800s. Her hobbies included baking Norwegian pastries, which she sold to raise money for scholarships at CLU, and rosemaling, a Norwegian form of decorative painting on wood. She participated in the Thousand Oaks chapter of the American Scandinavian Foundation, celebrated Scandinavian Days every year at CLU and attended weekly programs at the Scandinavian Cultural Center at the school.

A member of Ascension Lutheran Church, Olson was devoted to her faith and her family.

Wennes recalled seeing the centenarian at church standing and kneeling with the rest of the congregation. The family matriarch’s faith and love set an example for her three children, four grandchildren, six great-grandchildren, step-grandchildren and step-greatgrandchildren, Cohen said.

“She was always there for my dad and for us, and we all feel privileged to have had her in our lives for so long,” Cohen said. “She was love personified, in all its patience and kindness and grace. She made us want to be better people.”

Olson’s lifelong commitment extended to CLU, Wennes said. In 50 years, the honorary CLU alumna never missed Opening Convocation at the university.

“Just her presence was a sign of her love and loyalty to CLU,” he said.

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