The Music Man
For the whole decade of the 1950s, he was known as Blue Earth’s own “Music Man.”
And, just like the famous musical of the same name, Howard Olsen came to town and built up a band and an orchestra, too, for that matter.
Now this ‘music man’ just celebrated his 100th birthday.
Here is his story.
Olsen was born and raised in Badger, South Dakota.
In 1934 he started attending Dakota Wesleyan University, but by his junior year, his professor insisted that with his musical talent, Olsen needed to finish college at the famous Eastman School of Music in New York.
However, after just one semester, Olsen was back in his home state to finish his education. His first teaching job was also in South Dakota, at Hecla High School, where he taught for two years.
He knew right away that he had found his passion in life teaching music.
In 1940, Olsen went to St. Paul Park to teach, and met and married an elementary teacher, Sigrun Gislason, in December, 1941.
It was right after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Olsen was soon drafted into the U.S. Army.
However, his assignment was to direct a 70-piece Army concert band and tour numerous U.S. cities and help sell war bonds.
After three and a half years, Olsen was honorably discharged and the couple returned to Minnesota where Olsen earned his masters degree from the University of Minnesota.
After graduation, he landed a teaching job in Blue Earth and the couple arrived before the start of the school year in 1947.
Howard taught both band and orchestra and Sigrun taught elementary school.
“The couple was very well liked,” says former Blue Earth teacher Elloyce Queensland. “Howard’s students respected him, he was a teacher with old school ways, but he was liked by his students.”
Olsen built up the band to 82 members and the orchestra to 52 students.
The band was so good that they were invited to travel to Washington, D.C. during the 1955-56 school year, where they played on the steps of the Capitol Building.
“The kids that had him for a director thought he could almost ‘walk on water,” says Blue Earth resident A.B. Russ, who knew Olsen well in those days. “The band played music the way it should be played and they also marched very well.”
Something else happened to the Olsens during those years.
“While we were in Blue Earth, we didn’t have a family. It just wasn’t to be, I guess, so we adopted,” Olsen told reporter Matt Nielsen for a story in the Hopkins-Minnetonka Sun Sailor newspaper. “The adoption agency called and said they had two sisters and they didn’t want to separate them and asked if we would take two. We said, ‘Yeah, we will take two.'”
The two girls are named Christie and Karna.
“Now we have four grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren,” Olsen adds.
After 13 years in Blue Earth, Olsen learned there was a teaching vacancy in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
“The population was 8,500, so it was painted up as a fine orchestra job,” Olsen said in the Sun Sailor interview. But it was not what he expected. “It was my fault because I didn’t look into it enough. I took the job and it was a mess.”
While he thought the orchestra would have 70 pieces, he ended up with just 12 strings.
Luckily, just a year later, in the spring of 1961, he received a letter from the Edina School District with an offer to return to Minnesota. He took it.
Olsen taught in Edina from 1961 until 1970 and by the end he had built up his 70-piece orchestra.
After retiring, he was talked into another stint of teaching in Robbinsdale from 1971 to 1975.
After retiring for a second time, he and his wife, Sigrun, traveled a lot in both the U.S. and in Europe.
Olsen has been living by himself for the past 11 years in Hopkins, as Sigrun passed away in 2004.
He still greatly misses her.
Queensland says Blue Earth and Blue Earth Area Schools have long been blessed with great music teachers.
“When Howard left he was replaced by two people, Hans Alleckson as a band teacher and Logan Sohn for orchestra,” she says. “They were also both excellent teachers. Logan also became known as ‘Mr. Music’ here. He built up the orchestra so much he actually had 120 kids in junior orchestra.”
Howard Olsen would have been proud that what he started in 1947 continued to grow and grow here in Blue Earth.