A Manor of speaking
Meeting with Vern Olson you become acutely aware of the life experience that is sitting before you. At 101 years old the insight and understanding he has to offer is likely limitless. With just an hour to visit, however, you can only skim the surface. What a delightful conversation it was though. Following is just a piece of what I learned, the basics, have you, of “Vern 101”.
Born April 9, 1921, (happy belated birthday!) in Havre Mont., Vern was fourth in a line of five kids and smiled as he recalled going to the Bear Paw Mountains with them to pick gooseberries and chokecherries. This somehow led to the story of smoking his first, and last, cigar. It made him very sick back then, it makes him laugh now. He also laughs at his stint at the Arthur Murray school of dance; he insists they taught him how not to dance. That story made me yearn for the days when people took dance classes. They learned the names and steps, held hands, and helped one another glide across the floor. Though Vern’s dancing days are over his sharp attire made it quite easy to picture. I imagine he was a better dancer than he gives himself, or Arthur Murray, credit for.
Vern speaks fondly of his youth, particularly the jobs he worked that seemed to have influenced the rest of his life. In junior high he worked at his father’s bike shop earning just 10 cents an hour. By high school he was pumping gas that cost just 15 cents per gallon. (I teared up a little at that.) After World War II where he served mainly in North Africa and Okinawa, he drove his Harley Davidson (purchased for $528) to Purdue University in Indiana to enroll in Electrical Engineering classes. Vern began his engineering career in Gary Indiana, working for US Steel. He didn’t care for the “mass of humanity” there, as he put it, and came back to Montana.
Vern married Hazel, who was also from Havre. His brother married Hazel’s sister. He met her at their wedding and wed themself just a year later. Vern lost Hazel in the winter of 2011; they spent over 60 years together. He smiled when he referred to her as “a keeper”. Yes, it seems she most certainly was.
The Olsons had two sons and a daughter who sadly passed away as an infant. They raised the boys, Andrew, and Brent, here in Montana in a house he boasts he helped build for just $0.75 an hour. He also spoke of the changes in electronics over that time and how he remembers speaking on party lines where as many as six people would be on a single line. He, and those changes, must have influenced his boys as well; they too became electrical engineers.
Vern Olson is clearly a man of faith and is a proud Christian. One of the changes in American life he finds compelling is how “back then people were involved with church, the men wore a suit and tie, and the women wore dresses”. He lamented how you “didn’t have to worry about your kids” back then either.
I was not surprised that Vern mentioned how people used to dress, my own mother spoke of that often. I did, however, find it almost odd that he would think of it as “compelling”. All the changes in the world and his first thought went to people’s wardrobe, particularly at church. The next thing that he mentioned was what he referred to as ‘the beginning of the end”.
My ears perked up. “Gone With the Wind” he said. “The movie, Gone with the Wind?” “Yes,” he continued. “When Clark Gable said his famous line, ‘Frankly my dear I don’t give a D, havoc was raised over that! It was the beginning of the end”. Vern Olson shared that he “had a wonderful life, nothing to regret”, except for maybe being a bit of a workaholic. He tries to keep active and strong. He worries about Communism taking hold, but his faith is important to him, and he is happy to see whatever God has instore for him. “Five- or six-times God intervened, or I wouldn’t be here” he explained.
Still, Gone with the Wind? My curious brain cannot let that go. Was it the curse word? I really want to learn more about his thoughts on this, I find it, and him, fascinating. There was only so much time to spend with Vern, however. I think this means we should schedule another visit. I also think it means you should schedule a visit to places like the Manor. All too often we forget that our elders were once kids and young adults themselves. They have lived through things we’ve yet to even anticipate. And I know they would love the company.
Thank you for the time, Vern. And thank you to the Manor staff and volunteers in Ennis that care for him and his peers. Your contribution and kindness have not gone unnoticed.