In Memory of Longtime Trustee John Olsson


John E. Olsson, founder of Olsson Associates and a former Cooper Foundation trustee, died January 28, 2015. He was born on May 14, 1926 in Queens, New York, to Albin Harold Normandes Olsson and Ida Marie Rosengrin Olsson, who had emigrated from Sweden. John said of his parents, “There is one thing people should know about my parents, they were always rich, but not rich with money.”

John graduated from Richmond Hill High School in Queens in 1944 and from the New York State Maritime College in the Bronx in 1946 as a licensed assistant engineer and as an ensign in the U.S Navy. After six months on troop ships between New York and France, he entered the Navy as an Engine Division Officer. After his discharge, in 1947, he took advantage of the G.I. Bill and enrolled at the University of Nebraska. He returned to sea in the summer of 1948 on a special Navy cruise around the world on the U.S.S. Greenwich Bay. In 1949, he shipped out on the Gulf Oil Tanker, S.S. Gulf Stream between New York and Venezuela and then on a Naval Reserve cruise on the Destroyer U.S.S. Power to Halifax, Nova Scotia.

While at the university, he worked part-time for Fulton & Cramer, Consulting Engineers, and then joined that firm full time after college. After five years he and his first wife, Jean Guenzel Olsson, opened a consulting engineering firm in the Sharp Building in Lincoln. John was the only engineer and Jean did much of the clerical work. John said that at first no one called, so he started driving to towns in Nebraska to see what might turn up. Their first job was platting a cemetery in Seward County for a $56.00 fee. Although their gross income that year was only $2,900.00, by the end of the next year it had increased to $10,000.00. John added to his credentials by becoming a registered civil engineer, which resulted in quite a bit of work with municipalities.

In 1958, he and Max Burroughs formed a partnership which was subsequently joined by Charles Johnson. In 1962 they merged with one of Lincoln’s leading architectural firms to become Clark, Enerson, Olsson, Burroughs and Thomsen providing architecture as well as engineering and planning. In 1970, the civil and mechanical engineering departments left the group to become John E. Olsson and Associates. By 2015, Olsson Associates had grown to 900 employees in 24 offices in eight states.

John was elected a trustee of the Cooper Foundation in 1978 and served for 26 years, retiring in 2004. He served in a number of capacities including chair of the Audit Committee, a role for which he was particularly well suited. He was also a director of the National Bank of Commerce, Bankers Life Nebraska (Ameritas), president of the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce, and many professional engineering organizations. He served on many community boards including chair of the Community Chest (United Way) and as a director of the Lincoln Community Foundation and the Salvation Army. He was a long-time member of First Presbyterian Church in Lincoln where he as a Sunday school teacher, chair of the board, president of the church’s foundation, Elder and chair of the Annual Covenant Program.

John was also a licensed pilot, a serious sailor, ice-boater and tennis and squash player.

More than two decades ago, John created the Olsson Family Foundation. John managed his foundation with the same care and precision as he did all other aspects of his life. He thought not only about to whom to make donations, but also on what basis, and to be sure that the Olsson Family Foundation was being operated according to best practices and the law. Toward this end, he engaged the National Bank of Commerce Trust Department and Baird Kurtz and Dobson, CPA and he asked E.N. “Jack” Thompson, then chair of the board of the Cooper Foundation, to advise him on operations.

In early 2000, John collapsed on the court while playing tennis with his usual Thursday night group. Drs. Bill Griffin and Dale Capek were on the next court and gave John CPR. He revived, and subsequently rehabilitated at Madonna. After returning home, he worked with the specialists at the Barkley Speech Language and Hearing Clinic at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Upon John’s retirement from the board of the Cooper Foundation, he selected the Barkley Center as the recipient of a $10,000 grant in his honor. He asked that the grant honor David Hamnett, Emeritus Assistant Professor who provided important support and speech therapy.

John is survived by his wife, Nancy Etmund Olsson and his four children: Sarah O’Neill, Bud and Janeese Olsson, Liz and Steve Jordet and Jon S. and Jody Olsson, and by Nancy’s children, Jane and Dave Firestone, Bill Etmund, Tom and Janet Etmund, and Sarah and Gary Gilson. He leaves behind many, many grandchildren.