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Gordon L. Olson, Grand Rapids City Historian Emeritus, died on January 18, 2024 at the age of 80. A man of strong principle and generosity, even a heart as big as his wasn't enough to overcome the many medical challenges he faced in the last two years of his life.
Born on April 5,1943, in Frederic, Wisconsin, Gordon Olson grew up on a farm. His parents instilled a strong work ethic in him and his three siblings along with a progressive political attitude. Throughout his life Gordon was not without opinions and was not shy about sharing them. On occasion he'd ruffle some feathers, often with tongue in cheek. He maintained a healthy curiosity and an engaging sense of humor. He claimed that he did not have a soft side. But he did. And he displayed a lifelong love of animals, dating back to his earliest days on the farm, along with an enduring love of books.
Olson attended local elementary and high schools and excelled at sports. He had to. There were about 20 boys in his graduating class of 40 and every one was expected to play for the varsity. Olson then attended Wisconsin State University, River Falls, where he earned a BS degree in history, followed by an MS in teaching. It was here he met his future wife, Christine Broniszewski. They were married in 1968. In 1969 he attended the University of Wyoming to begin work on his PhD. During this time, he served as curator of the Wyoming State Museum. In 1972, while attending a seminar at Colonial Williamsburg, Olson met Grand Rapids Public Museum Director Weldon Frankforter who offered him the job of Assistant Director of the Museum. The Olson's relocated to Michigan and Gordon worked for the Museum until 1979 when he was named to the newly-created post of Grand Rapids City Historian, just one of a small group of city historians in the country.
Olson thrived in his new job. He embraced his new community and became the primary resource for city history. He welcomed all who visited his office at the Grand Rapids Public Library with research questions or just to share stories. He was an avid listener. And his reputation traveled well. It was often said that anyone visiting from Grand Rapids to anywhere in the continental U.S., and sometimes beyond, would eventually be asked if they knew Gordon Olson. His home community knew him well and showed its appreciation. After his retirement from his city post he was named Grand Rapids City Historian Emeritus. In 2002 he earned the Albert Baxter Award from the Grand Rapids Historical Society, and in 2014 he was the initial recipient of the Kutsche Office of Local History Award, an honor later changed to the Gordon Olson Award.
Gordon originated and/or presided over projects that included the city's historical marker and riverfront exhibit and ethnic history programs, the Great Lakes Beadwork traveling exhibit, Downtown Grand Rapids walking tours and videos, a Festival of the Arts Downtown History Tour, and well over a thousand programs and lectures to groups throughout the community. In addition, he was a sought-after member for numerous organizations and was a willing volunteer. He served on the board of the Historical Society of Michigan and was a founding member of the National Council of Public History. He also taught history at Grand Rapids Community College and GVSU.
Olson authored over 40 books and articles and served as editor on many others. Among these were the exhibit catalog Beads: Their Use By Upper Great Lakes Indians; A Grand Rapids Sampler; Grand Rapids: A City Renewed; Grand Rapids and Its People, a local history text and curriculum for area schools; Flight to Freedom, the story of the Vietnamese in West Michigan; Thin Ice: Coming of Age in Grand Rapids, co-edited with Reinder VanTil; A Michigan Polar Bear Confronts The Bolsheviks, Private Godfrey Anderson's World War 1 memoir of service in northern Russia; The Notorious Isaac Earl and His Scouts, the story of Lt. Isaac Newton Earl and the special Union Army scouts he commanded during the Civil War.
Gordon also produced histories for Amway, Steelcase Inc., Mary Free Bed Hospital, the Grand Rapids Foundation, Robert B. Annis Water Resources Institute at GVSU, Clark Retirement Community, and Irwin Seating Company. His writing career led him to become one of the original members of a community of writers and literary enthusiasts that still meet weekly at the Cottage Bar in Grand Rapids.
Olson maintained his love affair with sports by continuing to play into his early 60s. He was a founding member of the Gilmour Gorillas and a regular on the Old Yellers City Rec softball teams. He formed and managed a vintage baseball team (no gloves), the Kent Base Ball Club, from 1991 to 2012, taking his team to venues in Michigan such as Fallsburg, Douglas, Bay City, Rochester, Fayette, Benton Harbor, Greenfield Village, Ludington, Manistee, Petoskey, Mackinac Island, and Navin Field, site of the former Tiger Stadium. The Kents also visited communities throughout the Midwest and other places, such as New York State, Woodstock, Ontario, Doubleday Field in Cooperstown, New York, and various minor league ball parks... He established the Silas K. Pierce Cup, later renamed the Pierce-Olson Cup, for a tournament held annually at Riverside Park that drew as many as 16 teams from throughout the Midwest.
Gordon and Christine made their own history in a marriage filled with adventure. Christine was well known in the community as well, as a fine artist and as a teacher at Kendall College of Art and Design. She is currently a docent at The Grand Rapids Art Museum. Although the couple did not have children, he and Christine enjoyed their many nieces and nephews. And Gordon easily became a father figure to countless students, teammates, and friends, young and old. The Olson's were also experienced world travelers. Gordon recently fulfilled a lifelong dream to visit all seven continents, the last being Antarctica just a few short years ago.
Gordon is survived by his wife Christine, his brother Gary (Kim), and his sisters Carol (Ted Fox), and Lois (Jerry Peterson), as well as many nieces and nephews.
It is impossible to summarize a life such as Gordon Olson's. There are more stories than there is time to adequately tell them. This being said, a memorial will be held for Gordon at a date yet to be announced. In the meantime, donations in his name can be made to: The Literacy Center of West Michigan, the Kutsche Office of Local History at GVSU, and the Grand Rapids Public Library Foundation.