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Olson's place in history secured

I don't know what I expected.

Maybe if I drove down to his office, the rumor wouldn't be true. Mike Olson would come out and greet me like before. He would remind me of the history behind the wonderful old pictures he ordered enlarged and framed on the walls so visitors could appreciate what he had held in his heart since boyhood.

He loved New Port Richey. This was his home for 68 years, a place where his grandparents settled and his mother became an education icon. He never considered leaving it for someplace more exotic or exciting. This made him unique in a county that grew almost overnight, an explosion that threatened to grind away tradition. Mike Olson wouldn't let that happen.

And in the process of protecting the past, he built a reputation as a progressive leader, a politician returned to his post as Tax Collector for nine terms over 32 years. That, folks, is extraordinary in Pasco politics, even more so when you consider he was the last Democrat in office.

In his case, success at the polls had little to do with philosophy. Rather, he ran a tight ship. Last week, even as his employees grieved over the news that their leader had suffered a fatal stroke, they went about their business as usual. And as usual, customers filled out the service satisfaction cards.

Olson took pride in telling people that he read every card. His old friend Jean Weightman, who served 16 years on the Pasco School Board before retiring, recently tested him. "I put a note on my survey card,'' she said last week. "'Mike, do you really read these?' He sent it back to me in the mail: "Yes, Jean, I read every one.'''

This fits with a meticulous attention to detail that began in his youth. Phil Chesnut, a retired banker who graduated from Gulf High School with Olson in 1962, said even then you wouldn't want to run against him for Student Council. His posters looked professional.

Chesnut told a story that best illustrates the biggest influence in Olson's life. They had attended the University of South Florida together after high school but left early for jobs. Thirty years later, both were highly successful in their careers and didn't need any more qualifications, but Olson had never forgotten his promise.

"He told his mother he would get a degree,'' Chesnut said. "He challenged me to do it, too."

The two men worked nights and weekends for two years and earned bachelors degrees in business management from Eckerd College in St. Petersburg.

Olson's mother, Mittye P. Locke, served as principal at Elfers Elementary School from 1937 to 1979. She demanded academic excellence from her son, but also fueled his interest in politics. She organized old-fashioned fish fry political rallies. In 1976, astronaut John Glenn attended one to promote Jimmy Carter's campaign for president.

The School Board in 1983 renamed Elfers Elementary to honor Mittye. Her son and his wife, Mary, cared for her at their home in the final years. She died on Feb. 25, 2009, two months shy of her 100th birthday. At the time, Olson offered this poignant observation:

"Before we were here, before most of us thought about moving here, her heart was beating. And it quit. For the first time in nearly 100 years that heart is silent. It's just amazing.''

Mike Olson is being remembered this week as a perfectionist and a political strategist, all true. But those who knew him best describe a devotion to family, community and historical significance, of which he is now a part.

Olson's place in history secured 06/29/13 [Last modified: Friday, June 28, 2013 7:42pm]
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© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


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