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Epilogue | Harry M. Olsen

Harry Olsen helped build Wesley Chapel youth sports from the ground up

WESLEY CHAPEL — If you were a parks official or a Pasco County commissioner in the last 10 years, there is a good chance you heard from Harry Olsen.

A driving force for youth sports in Wesley Chapel — which until a couple of years ago had no fields of its own — Mr. Olsen pressured the powerful.

"He would call them up," recalled fellow youth coach Paul Battaglini, "and say, 'Hey, I'd like to meet you at our field and clubhouse.

" 'Oh wait, I forgot — we don't have one.' "

They have one now, partly thanks to Mr. Olsen, who died Friday at University Community Hospital, of a heart attack. He was 42.

To drivers passing by the corner of Boyette and Overpass roads, the new Wesley Chapel District Park looks like a standard setter for youth sports: eight soccer fields, two football fields, plenty of space for basketball, baseball, soccer and lacrosse. All told, 3,500 kids play organized sports through the Wesley Chapel Athletic Association.

A group of dads started the athletic league nearly a decade ago, playing on hand-me-down fields and lobbying officials to fund a park for Wesley Chapel.

One of the most committed was "Harry O," warehouse manager and salesman.

In 2000, Wesley Chapel was booming. Families were moving in by the week. Their children played organized sports in Land O'Lakes — but often those rosters were full.

In response, Mr. Olsen and 11 other dads put up $100 each to form the Wesley Chapel Athletic Association. Their first makeshift flag football and soccer field held 2 inches of standing water after rains. Kids called it the Swamp.

After the Swamp came the Dust Bowl, a tract of land at a middle school where the grass had died.

Mr. Olsen never lost sight of his goal, said Tom FitzSimons, president of the Wesley Chapel Athletic Association.

"He would always say, 'What are our kids going to do? We can't be gypsies, keeping stuff in our garages,' " FitzSimons recalled.

Mr. Olsen was a Brooklyn native who played baseball at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, where he met his wife, Sarah. He remained in Rochester another decade, then moved to the Tampa Bay area. To friends and relatives, he seemed like a man with two full-time jobs.

"He'd get up at 3 a.m., go do his job, then be with the kids by 2:30 or 3 p.m.," said longtime friend and fellow coach Joe Ganci, 43. "After that, if his job needed him again, he'd go back and work there. I don't know when the guy slept."

Mr. Olsen kept a sharp eye out to help young athletes. When a kid couldn't afford league registration fees or new baseball cleats, Harry O paid for them himself.

He had a reputation as a fair and compassionate coach.

"Like any great coach he would raise his voice," said Battaglini, 47. "But he never singled a kid out. He would take him aside."

Tensions flared in 2004 and 2005 between recreation interests in Wesley Chapel and Land O'Lakes, which share the same taxing district. Wesley Chapel wanted a park, but who would pay for it?

Mr. Olsen, who coached children in Wesley Chapel and Land O'Lakes and served on both boards, did his best to keep tempers in check and reached out to all sides. Impact fees were eventually selected to pay for Wesley Chapel District Park.

"When you open up a park that serves that many people, there are always issues," said Rick Buckman, Pasco County's parks director. "Harry was always one that after official meetings took place would always call me and say, 'Hey, Rick, let's talk. What do you really think about this?' "

Mr. Olsen was working in shipping at the Wiregrass Mall JCPenney early Oct. 22 when he collapsed. He died a day later.

To Ganci, Mr. Olsen lived by "core values" — teaching kids to do the right thing. Though not a habitual churchgoer, Mr. Olsen repeated a core belief, one Ganci and his other friends are trying to remember.

"His favorite expression was, 'God's got a plan for me, Joe. God's got a plan for me.' "

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or


Harry M. Olsen

Born: Jan. 11, 1967.

Died: Oct. 23, 2009.

Survivors: Wife, Sarah; son, Harry IV; and daughters, Grace and Anna.

Harry Olsen helped build Wesley Chapel youth sports from the ground up 10/28/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 28, 2009 8:48pm]
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