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Serving: IL
Charles Olson
ALL SMILES: Dean Charles Olson had a true heart for students and for serving others.

Why everyone needs a Dean Olson

He knew us, he believed in us, he cheered relentlessly for us. He’d yell “I-L-L” across a crowd at anyone in orange and blue. And he nudged us into better versions of ourselves.

Start at the south end, go halfway down the hall in Mumford, hang a left into the orange and blue office, and there sat one of the best cheerleaders a farm kid in college ever had: Dean Chuck Olson.

I wish I knew the number of times I swung in there for advice or help or just a little pick-me-up. Dean Olson was assistant dean for “student development and career services,” a job title that was more like a personal manifesto. When he met you, he knew you, and you were a friend for life. He knew where you were from and what you wanted to do, and he’d already figured out what you should probably do next.

Dean Olson died this month, on April 14, surrounded by family. Right away, texts started popping in from classmates of our generation. The outpouring on social media was immediate and warm and true.

For as effusive and exuberant as he often was, some of my best memories of Dean Olson were in quieter moments. Like when I shared once that a particular class (and its teacher) wasn’t what it should have been. He listened, agreed, noted the drop date had passed, and quietly said that we could send a message if I dropped the class and he signed off on it. So that’s what we did.

Lesson: You need neither a loud voice or a big stick to make a point. 

Or when we took a group of students and ag displays to the Lincoln Park Zoo for Farm-City Days. We were a bunch of gung-ho farm kids ready to tell the city folks how awesome our cows were. We did that, but first he took us to the Hispanic neighborhoods in Chicago, where our group of farm kids learned about Mexican art, studied murals in Pilsen, and walked urban streets and into Catholic churches.

Lesson: Learn before you teach.

It was Dean Olson I went to when I got my first job offer at this very magazine. He analyzed starting salary data for ag comm grads and advised me to take the offer. So I did. He and his wife, Jan, came to our wedding reception. How many weddings must they have gone to over three decades of college life?

And he once gave me the truest assessment I’ve ever received, noting after I played the piano during a college awards reception that my music was like me: always working in the background and occasionally bubbling to the top to be noticed. It may be the finest compliment I’ve ever been given.

He was a good man, and a loyal Illini, and we were blessed to know him. And I’d be willing to bet that somewhere, somehow in our education, nearly all of us have had our own version of a Dean Olson. Someone who knew us, who believed in us, who cheered relentlessly for us.

Someone who very quietly made us better. Who was your Dean Olson?

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