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David Olson, UW’s founding Harry Bridges director, dies

The following obituary, written by Peter Kelley, was posted by the University of Washington.

A celebration of life will be held later this fall for David Olson, an award-winning professor emeritus of political science at University of Washington known for his scholarship on state, local and labor politics and governance of ports, and his lifelong commitment to civic education.

Olson died on Saturday, Sept. 15, on Orcas Island, where he lived for part of the year. He was 71.

“He was a towering figure in the political science department and an institution on campus from 1974 until well after his retirement in 2005,” said Peter May, department chairman. “He was a mentor and inspiration to many faculty, to staff who worked with him in his many roles, to thousands of undergraduates, to a loyal set of graduate students, and many others in his professional life.”

Olson was a highly respected researcher and was often quoted about political matters in local and national media. He wrote or co-edited five books and numerous articles about urban politics, state politics, political violence, congestion pricing, living wage campaigns, term limits and labor politics. He also was a pioneer in studying the governance of public ports.

Olson was the founding director of the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies at the UW in 1992 and served as the inaugural Harry Bridges Chair in Labor Studies.

The recipient of many honors, Olson received the UW’s S. Sterling Munro Public Service Teaching Award in 2005 and distinguished teaching awards previously at the University of Wisconsin and Indiana University. In 2007 the Washington State Senate named Olson the inaugural recipient of its Distinguished Civic Educator Award.

Outside the university, Olson served as a consultant to various port authorities and state and local governments. He was considered among the most expert authorities on public ports in the United States.

He was a devoted father and grandfather, man of faith and a lifelong supporter of the underdog. A true Husky fan, Olson was honored upon retirement with a football signed by former UW head coach Don James.

His wife, Sandra, said, “He could relate to anyone, no matter what their station in life or where they came from. He always found a personal connection with anyone he crossed paths with.”

Olson was proud of his Norwegian heritage and of being knighted by the  King of Norway in 2006 for his contributions to U.S./Norway scholarly exchange relations. He served as chair of the UW/University of Bergen Faculty Exchange Program from 1996 to 2002. Colleagues say he was annoyed that people sometimes mistook him for Swedish due to the spelling of his last name; the family got that name generations back when Ellis Island officials could not pronounce the name of Olson’s forefather, John Tobiassen, who emigrated from Norway.

Olson was proud, too, of his strong connection with unions and blue-collar workers, which came from his days as a truck driver delivering farm machinery across the country during high school and college. Olson remained a proud member of the Teamsters Union for the rest of his days.

Memories and remembrances from friends and colleagues came quickly following the news of Olson’s sudden death of a cerebral hemorrhage.

King County Executive Dow Constantine recalled taking his first UW class, in American politics, from Olson in 1980 and working under his supervision in the political science department’s legislative internship program.

“He was a major influence on my career in public service and he played that same role in the lives of many of his students,” Constantine wrote in a statement. “David was a both a great teacher and a noted scholar, all the more so because he fostered his strong connection with the world outside the University gates — to the working men and women affected by political decisions.”

Eugene Vrana of the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies Visiting Committee recalled in an email, “David moved so easily, confidently, and graciously among us all — academicians, politicians, labor educators, rank and file union members. We benefited so much from his special interest in ports and shipping, and his wonderful affinity with the men and women who worked there. He served his constituencies with such great insight and integrity — and with that warm twinkle in his eye.”

Olson’s family requests that in lieu of flowers or other gifts, donations can be made to one of two funds.

  • The David J. Olson Endowed Fund, University of Washington Foundation, which supports students undertaking scholarly work on state, regional, city and labor politics. Mail to: Ann Buscherfeld, Department of Political Science, UW Box 353530, Seattle WA 98195-3530.
  • The San Juan Preservation Trust, which helps preserve cherished places in the San Juan Islands for current and future generations. Mail to: The San Juan Trust, Box 327, Lopez Island, WA 98261.

In later years, Olson and his wife spent much time at their cabin on Orcas Island, where he spent time with his cherished family, cultivated a magnificent garden and hosted visiting friends and family.

Olson accepted the 2005 Munro award in the spirit of its namesake, whom he knew well, and “in the belief that we the living benefit by the public acts of those who have now passed, and that we as teachers convey to the next generation, and the generation after that, the mandate to leave this Earth better than we found it.”

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