Donald "Doc" Norman
Donald Norman Olson “Doc” was a caring and clever man. Having endured harsh times, he was motivated to make life good for those around him. He was dutiful in providing for his family, working hard on the job and serving his country with pride. In that way, he was “old school”—relying on his wits, being resourceful, taking responsibility and valuing lessons learned through experience. His affection for his wife, children and grandchildren was profound in its understatement. A man of few words, a usual response to an “I love you” was, “Too sweetie” or simply putting up two fingers. His loved ones felt the depth of what he meant.
Donald Norman Olson “Doc” was born November 7, 1924 in La Crosse, Wisconsin to Norman and Vera (Dansberry) Olson. He and his younger sister Dolores came of age during the Great Depression, when families did whatever was necessary to make ends meet. His father was a commercial fisherman and Don helped out financially by making deliveries and collecting whatever he could to sell for a bit of cash, including bottles that were used by moonshiners. Being an excellent marksman, Don’s father also put food on the table by bagging ducks and geese that flew by (never mind what season or jurisdiction it was).
By the 1930s, economic conditions had become unbearable, and the fishing industry slowed to nearly nothing. Don’s dad took to fishing at night, which was not legal, but that solution didn’t last long when the river froze over – and made a little “bathtub gin” to make ends meet. Across the country, shortages were felt in every sector of life. Power companies were compelled to turn off gas and electricity for nonpayment of bills. People turned to kerosene lamps and candles for light and to wood and coal for heating the house. Fortunately, the Olsons lived across from the White Breast Coal Company, so Don was able to pick up enough coal in the street and alleyway to heat the house during the winter.
Despite the Depression, Don and his friends still had fun playing hockey, ice skating, fishing and swimming down at the river. They made bows and arrows out of willows, guns out of rubber and scooters out of wooden orange crates mounted on old rollerskate wheels. They played softball, football and basketball when they managed to sneak into the YMCA. The only time they could afford going to movies was when they found bottles to sell for the price of one ticket and sneaking the others in a back door.
Don attended Lincoln School (K-9) and La Crosse Central High School. To his knowledge, education did not suffer because of the Depression – there were no cut-backs to sports programs, which meant Don could play football and basketball, even competing with teams that required them to travel to different towns and stay overnight. Don was an excellent athlete—running track and playing team sports—and he made the All-City Football Team in 1942 as a guard. It was in high school that Don acquired the nickname “Doc” because he used an old leather doctor’s bag to carry his gym clothes to school.
Doc formed a deep and abiding relationship with his coach and was proud of the fact that he was the only football player to receive two game balls from Coach Babe Weigant. In years to come, Doc became an active member of Central High School Booster Club in which he and his friends organized many fund raising events, such as honoring Coach Babe Weigant and Coach Mark Sutton. Funds were used to purchase athletic equipment and frames for the pictures of team athletes. Over the years, Doc painstakingly mounted the photos of the athletic teams, while Ruth typed in all the scores and names of the athletes. He rescued photos from the old Central High School that dated back to the early 1900s and added them as well. To this day, the walls of the Central High School show his great interest in boys’ and girls’ sports as he continued to mount photos, lists of names and statistics every year until 2009.
During the summer, young Doc spent time in Chicago, staying with his aunt and uncle in the Loop area known as “Hell’s Kitchen”. He and his cousin often hung out in the alleys outside the jazz clubs, listening to the music and catching glimpses of the many famous jazz musicians (and even meeting up with a few of the infamous Chicagoland gangsters of the day). Some jazz musicians were just getting their start, and at the time, Glenn Miller, the Dorsey Brothers and Bennie Goodman all played in the same band. Doc often went downtown at night and listened to all the bands for free. That was possible because, in the days before air conditioning, the back doors were left open and the music spilled out into the night, much to the delight of at least one jazz fan. As a result, Doc developed a life-long love of jazz and, at some point in every day, jazz music could be heard coming out of his home.
Jazz was just part of Doc’s interest in the arts. He was an excellent artist and thought of going on to art school. However, the necessity of earning money and outbreak of WWII put that notion to the back burner. As an adult, Doc always believed in education and when he had children of his own, he offered each of them the opportunity to further their education beyond high school.
Despite the prank he and his friends pulled on graduation day 1943 (involving a loose goose), Doc received a diploma as he liked to say, “for the convenience of the board of education.” He went to work for G. Heileman Brewing Company for approximately three months and then joined the US Army. He served from May 21, 1943 to April 20, 1946 in the European Theatre Operation in France and Germany as a sergeant and bayonet drill instructor in the 70th Infantry Trailblazers Division. He ended up being hospitalized in France for two months when he contracted diphtheria. He had lost consciousness while in combat, and when he woke up in an ambulance with both German and Allied soldiers inside, he had to ask the medic which side picked him up.
While on leave in his second year of duty, Doc married his high school sweetheart, Shirley Frey, on November 16, 1944. Their life together only began when he returned home in 1946. Doc resumed his job with G. Heileman Brewing Company, his only employer. For the next 45 years, Doc worked faithfully and accepted as much overtime as he could to provide for his family. His son Gregg was born in May 1950, but unexpectedly, he lost his wife Shirley to diabetes in 1957. As a gesture of love for his wife and respect for his former coach, Doc bought graves near the Weigant family plot and laid Shirley to rest near his beloved coach and friend who would watch over her until he would join her again.
Through mutual friends, Doc met Ruth Haeuser at a singles dance. He was smitten by her and many times asked her to marry him. It took a few years of persistence and a lot of dancing for her to say “yes.” An otherwise self-confident Doc was a bit intimidated when he and Ruth went to her family’s farm so he could “formally” ask her brothers for her hand in marriage. The couple married on February 27, 1960 and added two daughters to his family with the birth of Susan in 1963 and Michelle in 1966.
The family first lived on 22nd Street and then 27th Street, with Doc doing the majority of work in building his houses. Ruth often took Susan for a walk in her stroller from 22nd Street to 27th Street to check on Doc’s progress and to bring him something to eat. Doc had worked hard to purchase the lot on 27th Street because it had a beautiful view of the bluffs, and to take full advantage, he installed a large picture window so everyone could enjoy the panorama. Once he put a wood-burning fireplace in the new house, he was obliged to cut wood for it. Being detailed as he was, Doc measured out all the logs and cut them to the same length and carefully stacked and rotated his stock. He accumulated so much wood that, after over 20 years of not collecting any more, there is still plenty of wood around the house today to last for years to come.
When his father died in the mid 1960’s, he dutifully went to see his mother after he got off of work – taking care of her house, her yard, and her every need before heading home to his family.
Doc also stockpiled fish. As avid fisherman, he was known to many at the 7th Street boat dock on the Mississippi River as the only fisherman who rowed his boat, used cane poles and always knew where all the “hot spots” were. He regularly came away with the limit so that the Olson family freezer was always packed with crappies and sunfish.
Doc also loved music and dancing, and he was good at it. When he and Ruth went out dancing, spectators actually requested songs that would get the two on their feet just so they could watch them. If Al Townsend’s Band was playing, everyone knew that Doc and Ruth would be out on the dance floor.
A special treat was when it would be Doc’s night to “cook” – which meant a trip to Johnnie’s for fish. When Johnnie’s closed, it took a while to find a new “go to” place, but Doc and Ruth soon found Schmidty’s, where they became regulars.
In his later years when asked how he was doing, Doc often replied, “If I felt any better, I couldn’t stand it.” Then after a pause he would add, “but I lie a lot.” Indeed, heart and circulatory problems plagued him after retirement and, unfortunately, Doc had to give up fishing when he could no longer get in and out of his boat with ease. Eventually he quit “hunting” for downed trees to cut up for firewood. In recent years, there were many times the family was sure he wouldn’t make it through another health crisis, but the Mayo surgeons and Ruth’s vigilant nursing care and deep love kept him going. His memory may have diminished, but Ruth’s devotion never wavered. When he wasn’t quite sure where he was or sometimes even who she was, Ruth simply put her arms around him and told him she loved him. That absolutely made Doc happy and everything was fine!
Donald Norman Olson “Doc” was preceded in death by his first wife, Shirley (nee Frey) and his sister, Dolores McPherson. He was the beloved husband of Ruth (nee Haeuser); the cherished father of Gregg (Kathy) Olson, Susan (Gary) Kelm, and Michelle (Roger) Lamping; the loving grandfather of Rachel Jacobs, Sarah (Mo Abdi) Olson, Marc (Terra) Olson, Emily, Katie, and David Kelm; the proud great-grandfather of Sofia, Jamal, Jessica, Jennifer (who was born on February 15) and Sam; the dear uncle of Vickie Lauermann and Glenna (Bob Cox) Eorgoff. Fond brother-in-law of Ruby (the late Marvin) Sloop, the late Merlin (Marvelle) Haeuser, Carrol (Vivian) Haeuser, Rhoda (the late Robert) Grebe, and Leland Haeuser. He is further survived by his extended Haeuser family, other relatives and friends.
“I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.” 2 Timothy 4:7
. . . and he did it “His Way”
Leave a condolence or share a memory