As a four-year old boy in Mount Horeb, Paul Olson contracted polio and had to spend the rest of his life on crutches. Looking back, Olson said "Polio made me the man I am...Because I couldn't run, I discovered the world of books and ideas." After graduating from high school he entered the UW-Madison and fell in love with the city, calling it "the Athens of the West." When he graduated in 1931 during the depth of the Great Depression, he was delighted to get a teaching job here. Olson went on to spend a distinguished 42-year career with the Madison Public Schools--18 years as a science teacher at West Junior High, two years as a science teacher at Randall Elementary, and finally, 23 years as the first principal of Midvale Elementary. Children loved to be around this man with a warm and ready smile.
In addition to his duties as a West teacher, Olson helped organize the Madison Teachers Federation, the predecessor of today's MTI, and served as its president. Later, as Midvale principal, he represented the district in its negotiations with the union he helped create. After retirement he served on term on the school board. (1977-1980)
If education was his profession, the environment was his passion. As Midvale principal he became an eager disciple of Aldo Leopold, the internationally famous author of Sand County Almanac (1949) and sought ways to teach ecology to students. In 1954 he began a summer conservation program where high school students could get academic credit for restoring streams, managing woodlots, and nurturing prairies. In the late 1950s Olson organized the purchase of the Madison School Forest as an outdoor conservation classroom. Olson's goals were clear: "Let's take the young to the hills and woods and show them the glories. There is the future...." The pioneer environmentalist also founded the Wisconsin Chapter of the Nature Conservancy and served as its president for 17 years. When the expansion of tilled fields threatened to make the Prairie Chicken extinct in Southern Wisconsin, Olson mobilized the Dane County Conservation League and raised one million dollars for the acquisition of 4,000 permanently-preserved acres of habitat.
For his spirited environmental leadership Olson was named Conservationist of the Year (1967) by the Wisconsin Wildlife Foundation and was inducted into the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame (1989), a distinction he shares with Aldo Leopold, Sigurd Olson, and Gaylord Nelson. Olson was also Governor Gaylord Nelson's first appointee to the Wisconsin Conservation Commission, the predecessor of the DNR.
Stand back and take in the sweep of Olson's life and you see a man who wanted to teach students a deep and abiding love for the natural world and the importance of that world for human happiness.