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   from the issue of July 20, 2006

Olson calls 50-year university tenure 'a good ride'


As a young man, Paul Olson studied in London on a Fulbright grant and traveled through most of Western Europe in his spare time. He earned his doctorate from Princeton, where he often saw Alfred Einstein walking through his neighborhood. When he finished graduate school, he had job offers at Duke and Cornell.

MOVING ON - Paul Olson, professor of English, retired in June after serving the university for 50 years. Photo by Troy...
 MOVING ON - Paul Olson, professor of English, retired in June after serving the university for 50 years. Photo by Troy Fedderson/University Communications.

The world was his oyster.

But in 1957, just a few years after he left Nebraska, Olson came home.

"I believed and still believe very strongly in roots," Olson said. "All of my relatives were here and my wife's relatives were in Kansas. And I felt if I was going to do anything I should come back home, because here at least I understood the mischief-makers."

With Olson's June retirement, UNL's English department has bid farewell to a beloved and recognizable "mischief-maker."

The story of Olson's academic life is not only the story of one scholar. It is a course in social activism and a journey through the ever-changing values and politics of higher education.

When Olson arrived at the University of Nebraska to study for his master's degree, he hoped to become a journalist. McCarthyism was in full swing, and professors who dared to teach anything resembling communist literature were being forced off campuses nationwide. Olson and his buddies "hated the bourgeoisie," and passed their time discussing Picasso and Goethe.

"We were kind of artificial flowers," Olson said of that time. "We knew very little about Nebraska or the region, instead we were pretentious modernists, reading Eliot and some ways we were very faddish."

After he received his degree, Olson headed to England, where he observed life under a socialist government firsthand. Many of his friends at Kings College London viewed America as shifting toward fascism, and Olson found himself deeply ashamed of racism in the U.S.

In that year abroad, Olson experienced an intellectual awakening, and his arrival at Princeton was a sharp reminder of class and race divisions in America. Princeton at that time was the operational definition of Ivory Tower. There were no female faculty members and no people of color in his classes. "It was a very intellectual place, but a place with no capacity for self-reflection," he said.

As he completed his doctorate, Olson signed on to teach at the University of Nebraska. As he remembers it, he finished his dissertation and oral exams, loaded the car and raced across country, arriving late on a Sunday evening. He started teaching Monday morning.

Over the course of his career, Olson developed a broad repertoire of classes, but for the most part stuck with medieval literature; his "Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton" class was a highlight for many students. He also taught a course in the literature of agriculture and a literature of war and peace class.

Olson brought a great deal more than his extensive knowledge of literature into his classrooms. As he taught through the civil rights movement, the women's movement, the big '80s and a handful of wars, his students learned to dissect politics and justice via classical literature.

"I would try and ask questions that would lead my students to think, 'What is justice, and what kind of social system could accomplish justice?' without inhibiting student thinking. I would use what was embedded in the work, and try to help those ideas surface. I always tried to historicize the readings, and then ask the students to place it in their time and their conscience."

Outside the classroom, Olson's community activism is legendary. From 1961 until the late 1990s, he was a leader in curriculum development and education reform. He wrote the by-laws for Lincoln's Indian Center, and wrote the bill that established the Indian Commission. And, his most lasting and well-known affiliation is with Nebraskans for Peace.

Post-retirement, Olson isn't wasting any time. He is working with the Board of Education to combat bullying in the public schools, and he volunteers with the Center for Rural Affairs. He just finished a book on Shakespeare, and is considering writing next about Tolstoy and the Great Plains.

"What we want of the humanities is, I think, great texts and people of great conscience to act on them," Olson said in his retirement speech. "As for me, I have had a good ride... I have awakened to converse with Chaucer, Cather, Black Elk, Malcolm, Dante or Shakespeare. My students and common school teacher friends almost daily taught me. Colleagues respected my obsessions and indulged my absent-minded foibles....

"I can honestly say, with William IX of Aquitaine, that 'I have had much joy in this place, and God would not have wished it otherwise.'"



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