Kelsi Olson, a young band teacher at Brainerd High School, was standing on the stage in the performing arts center at Rosemount High School, where a large alumni concert band was assembled. Kelsi was talking about the reason for the gathering: a man named Steve Olsen was being honored as he retired after a lengthy career as a music educator.
Two days earlier a quieter but no less important gathering was held at Burnsville High School, where graduating seniors who plan to become teachers were honored at a signing ceremony in the school’s career center.
The events provided valuable bookends on the importance of educators by saying “thank you” to someone closing out a wonderful career and “welcome” to 14 young people embarking on a similar path.
In the old days of newspapers there was a joke about people who were responsible for compiling each day’s lists of deaths and births. The process was lovingly known as “shipping and receiving.” Time, of course, marches on, and it was inspiring to be in attendance at the Rosemount and Burnsville events. And on a personal note, there was a family interest in each gathering because my daughter Allison, a teacher at Burnsville, helped plan the future educator signing ceremony there, and she and her two older brothers were band kids under the tutelage of Steve Olsen.
The Burnsville event was brief, lasting no more than 20 minutes. Our daughter and her colleague Dave McDevitt spoke before the students signed letters of intent.
“It’s been a joy to get young people interested in this amazing field of changing lives,” McDevitt said. Ms. Millea added, “Do not lose the spark you have right now. You’re here right now because you are excited about teaching. That’s what we love. You are committing to a brighter future for everyone. You are dedicated to improving lives. … You are literal superheroes for making the choice to teach. If you want to make the world a better place, start with education.”
Steve Olsen, like so many educators in our state and beyond, always made the world a much better place. His 37-year teaching career began at Rosemount in 1981, took him to Bloomington Kennedy and then Eden Prairie before he returned to Rosemount in 1998. He taught elementary music, which he loved, during the last four years of his career.
My wife and I attended every concert in which our kids participated, as well as countless marching band performances at football games, parades and competitions. Those were special days; we think of them often and we miss them.
Steve – whom just about everyone calls “Mr. Olsen” – always went the extra mile. As Mother’s Day rolled around each year, during rehearsals he would ask his students to use their cell phones to call their moms, who would then listen to their children’s band play a song dedicated to them. How sweet is that?
The band assembled for the celebration at Rosemount consisted of former band students under Steve from both Eden Prairie and Rosemount. There was some gray hair and a few bald heads, along with fuller heads of hair on more recent graduates. Steve’s family had sent out the word (and the music) and the group got in a rehearsal before the event began. The musicians included Steve’s wife Natalie (a band teacher in Farmington), their daughter Kaylee and her husband Brad.
Between songs, different individuals stood at the microphone to speak about Steve and how important he has been to them.
The words of Kelsi Olson, a 2011 Rosemount graduate, were especially poignant. She began by saying, “I’m not sure I could adequately describe in words the impact Mr. Olsen has had on my life or the lives of his students in general, because it extends far beyond the many things he taught us.”
She talked about being a high school senior and telling Steve she was thinking of becoming a music educator.
“Instead of simply giving me advice about all the directions that I could possibly take, Mr. Olsen invited me to work as a student aide during his first-hour ninth-grade band,” she said. “I was able to see some of the behind-the-scenes work that Mr. Olsen did as a band director, which would have been helpful enough for a high school senior looking at this as a career. But like he did in so many aspects of his teaching, Mr. Olsen went above and beyond and invited me to lead the band for a rehearsal cycle on a piece and then conduct them at their concert. This was hands-down the best possible real-world experience I could have gotten at that point in my life. It ignited something in me that made me realize that this was a direction I was meant to take.
“I don’t think there’s an adequate enough way to say thank you besides doing everything I possibly can to pass on what I learned from you to my own students. I think I can speak for a lot of us on stage that we didn’t quite realize how lucky we were to have Mr. Olsen (pictured in the pink tie) as our band director while we were in school. It wasn’t until after we left that we could truly appreciate one of the biggest reasons why Mr. Olsen was a great teacher; the fact that he made extraordinary experiences the norm for us. He would always tell us that what we did, our work ethic, our dedication, our level of performance, was not normal because it was done at such a high level. But the thing was, we didn’t believe him. To us, these things were totally normal. Mr. Olsen instilled in us a desire to pursue greatness, to commit to what we were doing with everything we had, and to never settle for mediocrity.
“Looking back at it now from a different perspective, he was right. Our work ethic and level of dedication was definitely not normal. But because we had Mr. Olsen as a teacher, what was truly extraordinary became our normal. I believe this is one of the marks of a great teacher, and I believe I can speak for all of your former students when I say that we are so appreciative of this. As a band teacher myself, I understand that what we hope for our students is that they leave our classes not only as better musicians, but as better human beings.”
The alumni band performed the Eden Prairie and Rosemount school songs as people in the auditorium stood and clapped along. Before the final song of the night, “The Stars and Stripes Forever” by John Philip Sousa, Steve spoke briefly. He talked about knowing in fifth grade that he wanted to be a band teacher, about being paid $14,000 a year as a rookie teacher, about his goal of helping students love music.
He gave thanks for all the students, colleagues, administrators and families he has known over all these years.
“I feel very grateful, very blessed,” he said. “I’m so thrilled to have had this wonderful career.”
One more personal note: Our middle child, who lives in Phoenix, was frustrated that he wasn’t able to attend the ceremony and join the band at Rosemount. But he had a good excuse. He’s a music educator, just like Mr. Olsen, and he was teaching that day.Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn