A lifetime of what Paul Olson loves

Small Towns

Former and current Center for Rural Affairs staff members contributed to this blog.

Paul Olson suffered a massive heart attack at age 31 and lived.

“I thought, heck, I’ve got a lifetime ahead of me,” said Paul, now 87 and living in Lincoln, Nebraska. “This is all gravy. This is all a gift. I can do what I believe in. And, I did.”

Paul has committed his life to nurturing and sowing seeds of civil rights, rural education, Great Plains literary and historic studies, and social and environmental justice.

The Center for Rural Affairs recently honored Paul’s lifetime of service to protect our land and water and fight for a vibrant rural America by presenting him with the 2019 Seventh Generation Award.

Born in 1932 to a Lutheran lay pastor and a schoolteacher, Paul lived through the Dust Bowl and Great Depression. His father suffered hearing loss and moved the family to Port Wing, Wisconsin, to farm.

“My parents were so absolutely broke from the Dust Bowl,” Paul said. “When they went up there, they had absolutely nothing.”

They rented the farm, rented the cattle, rented the horses, and farmed for the better part of a decade.

“Area farmers supported a cooperative creamery and feed store,” Paul said. “The town meetings attracted an active crowd. Everybody threw in their two bits. It had a sense of genuine Jeffersonian democracy.”

Paul developed a love of rural places and people, as well as an appreciation for the financial instability of being a multipurpose farmer.

The Olson family left farming in 1945 when Paul’s father contracted rheumatic fever. For their 10 years of work, his parents got $2,200 at the auction. They moved to Nebraska where his mother supported the family by teaching in a one-room school near Ithaca.

Paul worked many jobs as a young man—farmhand, construction worker, house painter, and library assistant—before finding his way to academia and the University of Nebraska, where he taught for 50 years beginning in 1957.

Paul remembers meeting the founders of the Center, Marty Strange and Don Ralston, in 1978, at an event called The Prairie Project, which had presentations on topics such as clean energy and consolidation of family farms. Writer Wendell Berry, another early Center for Rural Affairs supporter, was the keynote speaker.

Marty and Don extended an invitation to join the Center for Rural Affairs board. Paul had recently started the University of Nebraska Center for Great Plains Studies, a research and outreach program focused on the people, cultures, and natural environment of the Great Plains.

“The Center for Rural Affairs was so controversial at that time, I thought the university would probably fire me for joining that board,” Paul said.

The Center ran counter to the central tenets of chemical industrial agriculture.

“The organic farming and sustainable agriculture movements were in their infancy,” Paul said. “There was no local food movement. As America increased its reliance on fossil fuels, the Center advocated the exploration of alternative energy sources… You would hear faculty people just ranting about what a terrible thing the Center was and what a danger it was to society.”

Paul went to his department chair.

“My chair, bless his heart, said, ‘You have complete academic freedom.’”

Paul joined and found the board full of passion, but often lacking in organization. The Center knew what it was against but struggled to find solutions in the face of major technological and economic shifts toward chemical and corporate agriculture.

“Sometimes I’d come home from board meetings and I’d think, ‘Boy, we really thought some good thoughts.’ And, then I would say, ‘But, what did we do?’” he said.

Paul helped bring order to the board and structure. It wasn’t always popular, he said, but work got done. That structure helped the Center for Rural Affairs persevere and serve rural America long after so many other mission-driven organizations born in the 1970s and 1980s died out. He also helped lay the foundation of the Center for Rural Affairs’ endowment fund, The Granary Foundation.

He served on the Center board for four decades, including many years as board president, playing a crucial role in shaping it into the organization it is today.

“My rant, my obsession, was to rebuild small towns, and within that, to rebuild rural education as a service to small towns,” Paul said of his time on the board.

Don remembers the lean beginnings of the organization and that Paul, along with fellow board member Connie Bowen, insisted the Center treat its staff well by providing paid health insurance and contributions to a retirement fund.

“Marty and I, who were responsible for raising the funds to pay for this, rolled our eyes and moaned to ourselves about having to implement these new employment policies on top of our main focus on slaying the corporate farming dragon,” Don said. “Paul’s empathy toward our staff has served the Center well over time.”

Current Center for Rural Affairs Executive Director Brian Depew said Paul provided a gentle, yet powerful, voice in the boardroom.

“He offered both vision and clarity, carefully considered and beautifully articulated,” Brian said.

Outside the Center for Rural Affairs, Paul has tirelessly fought for the ideals he believed in. He mediated between University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) students, faculty, and administration during the Vietnam War protests. He co-founded the Project English Center at UNL, co-founded UNL’s Nebraska Writing Project Rural Institutes, and served as a longtime board member of Nebraskans for Peace.

Paul left the Center board in March 2019, yet remains a stalwart advocate for social, environmental, and literary missions.

He’s doing what he loves.