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Howard Stanley Olson | 1922-2010

Howard Olson, missionary to Africa, dies at 87

SUN CITY CENTER — Howard and Louise Olson married after World War II and set sail to Africa on a ship designed for transporting troops.

"He was down below in a room with 149 roommates," Louise Olson said. "I was up in the sick bay with 35 roommates. That was our honeymoon."

They weren't headed to Africa for pleasure. Mr. Olson, a newly ordained Lutheran pastor, had accepted a position as a missionary in what is now Tanzania.

The Olsons spent more than four decades in Africa.

Mr. Olson died July 1 after a short illness. He was 87.

He and his wife met while he was in seminary and she was attending a neighboring college. A couple of years later, the day after he was ordained, they married.

Louise Olson's parents were also missionaries, and she grew up in Tanzania, which was then called Tanganyika. Her husband knew he wanted to do missionary work and had set his sights on Nepal. But he couldn't get a visa for Nepal, and just by coincidence, the church asked him to go to the country where his wife had lived.

Conditions were primitive. There were no markets, so he had to shoot small game and plant a garden to eat, his wife said. He built a windmill so they could have a few hours of electricity at night. He collected rainwater to get them through the dry months. Rough roads meant their car got a lot of flat tires, and Mr. Olson fixed the flats by stitching zebra hides onto the tires. He built houses, schools, churches and dispensaries, and he started literacy programs. He fought for education for girls, who at the time were routinely sold into marriage when they were still children, his wife said.

But Mr. Olson loved the work and the African people. He loved their culture and their music and respected their drastically different religious beliefs.

"He said, 'I came to Africa not only to teach, but to learn,' " his wife said.

It was partly because of that respect for the Tanzanian people that so many of them were open to hearing his message about Christianity.

"No one had ever shown them that there was a better way," his wife said. "So many of them came to us and said 'Why have you waited so long to tell us this good news, this news about Jesus Christ?' "

After 16 years in their first African home, the Olsons moved to a Lutheran seminary in northern Tanzania, where they stayed for 26 years.

Mr. Olson had a gift for languages and wrote a textbook for teaching Greek to people who spoke Swahili. He also composed hymns, adapting local folk melodies and African rhythms, with words from African poets.

While they lived in Africa, the Olsons adopted four children from the United States. After Mr. Olson retired and moved to Florida, where his wife had family, two of their adult children moved here to be near them.

All four were gathered with their parents in the last few days of Mr. Olson's life. The family patriarch knew he was dying. Although he could barely speak, he summoned the strength to say a few final words. It was the day before he died.

"Today is a wonderful day," he said. "And tomorrow will be perfect."

Memorial services are planned for 10 a.m. Monday at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Sun City Center. Besides his wife, Mr. Olson is survived by his sons Howard and Tim, his daughters Linda and Sharon, and seven grandchildren.

Marty Clear writes life stories about local residents who have recently passed away. He can be reached at mclear@tampabay.rr.com.

Howard Olson, missionary to Africa, dies at 87 07/08/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 7, 2010 4:53pm]

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