Missouri’s first lady of higher education
The Olson family, the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and the entire University of Missouri System, are mourning the loss of a dear mother and grandmother, and one of the university’s most loyal supporters. Vera Olson, widow of the late James C. “Jim” Olson, died Nov. 4 in Kansas City. She was 96.
James Olson served as both chancellor of UMKC, and president of the UM System. The late President Olson said often that the presidency was a team effort that he shared fully with Vera.
Vera said that Jim told her “we would be spending the bulk of our lives on a college campus because he wanted to be a college professor.” They did, first at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln and then at UMKC and the UM System. Together, they were always supportive of education.
She was first and foremost a dedicated wife and mother. She served as first lady and hostess of the UM System, but she was also able to set aside time for her interests, which included art history. She was a member of the Friends of Art Board at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and a tour guide. Vera took art history courses at UMKC.
Vera and Jim became active supporters of UMKC and the UM System upon their arrival in Kansas City in 1968. They 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, and it provides for performances on the four UM campuses.
The Olsons led a campaign to create the UMKC Performing Arts Center, which was named in Jim’s honor in 2008. Vera remained active and supportive of the university until her death, and was particularly devoted to the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance.
Vera Olson always thought learning was exciting. Whenever Jim’s assignments took them out of their home in Lincoln, Neb., Vera tried to take lessons in the history and language of the country in which they would reside. When moving to South America and Mexico, she studied Spanish one year in advance. Before going to Italy, she studied Italian and took art history courses.
She co-authored four books with her husband, including “Nebraska is My Home” for children and “The University of Missouri: An Illustrated History”.
“The Olsons continued their involvement with and support for the university long after Jim stepped down from the presidency,” said UMKC Chancellor Leo E. Morton. “They were steadfast supporters, continuing to leverage their personal and professional relationships and advocacy on UMKC’s behalf. The Olsons’ legacy included a stronger University of Missouri System and a stronger UMKC.”
In 2012, Vera was presented with the Chancellor’s Medal – the university’s highest non-academic award – honoring her for her unwavering support and service to UMKC. This medal, given at the discretion of the chancellor, honors those who have shown unwavering support and service.
At the UMKC Cherry Street Garage dedication, Vera sat in the passenger seat of a vintage car, which represented the history of the old structure, which was built under Jim Olson’s leadership. As the vintage car exited the lot, a new Chevy Volt was driven through a ribbon as it entered the new structure.
She leaves behind two daughters, Elizabeth Olson Goldring Piene and Sarah M. Olson, and two granddaughters, Jessica Goldring and Elizabeth Hua Ying Olson.
A memorial service is being planned for late this year. Friends may send memorial contributions in Mrs. Olson’s honor to the James and Vera Olson Fund for the Arts, care of UMKC, 5115 Oak St., Suite 229, Kansas City, Mo., 64110, 816-235-1566.