Celebration of a Life in Art

Family, friends gather to remember Vera Olson

Appropriately gathered in the performing arts center that the late Vera Olson played a key role in creating, friends and family came together to celebrate the life of Missouri’s first lady of higher education.

Olson, widow of the late James C. “Jim” Olson, died in November. James Olson served as both chancellor of UMKC, and president of the University of Missouri System. The late President Olson said often that the presidency was a team effort that he shared fully with Vera.

Vera and Jim established UMKC as the System’s campus for the arts, and dedicated themselves to bringing arts to each of the System campuses. At the time of his retirement from the UM System, the James and Vera Olson Fund for the Arts was established by the Curators. The Fund provides for performances on the four UM campuses.

Appropriately, music played an important role in the memorial service, which featured performances of some of her favorite pieces, including holiday music. Olson’s granddaughter, Jessica Goldring, sang “Shall We Gather at the River,” and joined her mother, Olson’s daughter Elizabeth Goldring Piene, to recite a Navajo poem. Both Piene and her sister, Sarah Olson, shared remembrances of their mother.

Other musical performances included “Goldberg Variations” by J.S. Bach, “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” “Silent Night,” “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow” and “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”

“She understood so well, and appreciated so much, the value of a university to a community,” said UMKC Chancellor Leo. E. Morton. “Vera showed great strength in the face of adversity. The efforts that she and Jim put forth to give the arts a proper home on this campus, in this very building, are proof of that. One of my proudest moments as chancellor was the opportunity to present Vera with the Chancellor’s Medal in 2012, our university’s highest honor, and one she so richly deserved.”

Steve Owens, General Counsel for the UM System, also spoke at the service.

“With Jim and Vera at the helm, the University saw renewed trust and value for higher education throughout the state, including in the Legislature.   And during this time, the University saw a remarkable resurgence in appreciation for the arts,” Owens said. “Vera and Jim believed that if the arts were going to flourish in this country, universities had to lead the way.”

Curtis Crespino, UMKC’s vice chancellor for advancement, offered his appreciation for Vera Olson in his welcome.

“In the later years after Dr. Olson’s passing, Mrs. Olson became a treasured fixture at UMKC events.  I have joked several times that she was a ‘rock star’ in every sense of the word.  When she entered a room, everyone wanted a chance to engage with her, and for good reason.  When Mrs. Olson spoke with you, she made you feel as if you were the most important person in the room,” Crespino said. “Her graciousness and her devotion to her beloved UMKC and the System will never be forgotten.”

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