Making Edna Proud

There was no doubt in Otis Brunson’s mind that his Murphy High School English teacher thought he was special. Miss Edna Olson had even picked out a girl she thought he ought to marry — something she would confess in later years to his wife, Jacquelyn, as they attended First Baptist Theodore together.

“You don’t want to disappoint a person like that. If you have a teacher like that who shows she really cares for you, you don’t want to go down the hall and do something wrong to mitigate that,” said Brunson, now retired after a career in the Mobile County Public School System that included 22 years as assistant superintendent, heading up the human resources department in the state’s largest public school system.

Burroughs Elementary in Theodore, AL, also has a teacher like that – 2014 Teacher of the Year Nina Bolar ’06.

Although the two teachers never met, Edna Olson is the reason Nina Bolar graduated from the University of Mobile with a Bachelor of Science in education. An endowed scholarship established from the estate of Edna Olson provided Nina with the funds that would make her future success possible.

“I know without that scholarship, I wouldn’t have graduated. I didn’t have any more money left. That scholarship helped me with my future,” Nina said.

Olson died in 1999 at the age of 94, after living in the same small house in Theodore, AL, since 1907. As she neared the end of her life, Olson asked Brunson to assure that her estate went to the places and causes she cherished. Following her wishes, Brunson worked with the University of Mobile Development Office to establish the Olson-Barnes Endowed Scholarship.

“Miss Olson was a teacher who loved her profession and wanted others to have an opportunity to be a teacher, and she wanted to help them. I think she would be pleased to know there are recipients who have benefitted from it,” Brunson said.

A Full Life
From the age of two, Olson lived in the little house on a farm her parents had on Swedetown Road in Theodore. Her longtime neighbors paint a portrait of a woman who was active in the community, loved to travel, liked to garden, and was outgoing and kept up with the times throughout her long life.

According to neighbor Rebecca Smith, the Olson family emigrated from Sweden to the United States and first settled in Chicago.

“At one time, satsumas were a big crop here. Some of the Swedish people bought from a land bank in New Orleans and settled here in a little colony. Some of Miss Edna’s dad’s friends settled here first and persuaded him to come because he liked to farm. He made their living off the farm, and they sold a lot of produce, including to the Catholic schools here. Her mother made the best baked goods you’d ever eat,” Smith said.

Olson graduated from Barton Academy in 1921, then from the University of Alabama. She returned home and began teaching in Wilmer, AL. Her career spanned over half a century. She lived with her parents in the same home in which she grew up, continuing to live with her mother after her father died.

Marilyn Browder Ross remembered moving to the neighborhood at the age of four.

“When we moved here, she and her mother lived here in the community close by. As little girls, we were allowed to go visit occasionally. I remember her mother as being a very, very old lady, which I am now. They would invite us into their kitchen and give us cookies. (Olson) would have probably been in her late 20s,” Ross said.

Years later, Ross would recall Olson’s love of animals. “She, of all things, loved the Kentucky Derby. She would watch it every year, and for years I would go watch the Kentucky Derby with her. I
think she would have liked to have had a horse in her life.”

Smith said Olson was always feeding birds and stray cats, and the family had ducks and chickens.

“She had raised a turkey from a baby and it fell in love with her. When she would drive in the driveway, it would sit in the middle of the driveway, wanting her to pick him up and put him in the car and drive him to the house,” Smith said. Although Olson never married, she told Smith there were plenty of opportunities. “She loved where she lived. She told me she had several proposals of marriage, but when she thought of leaving the farm where she lived, she just couldn’t do it,” Smith said. Olson’s sister, Helen Olson Barnes, lived up north with her husband, a boat captain on the Great Lakes. After he passed away, Helen developed brain cancer and Edna moved her sister home to Theodore, where she passed away.

“Her sister was very wealthy,” Smith said. “When her sister died, she left her estate to her mother. When her mother died, Miss Edna inherited it.”

But the inheritance didn’t change Olson’s way of life. “She was a very frugal person,” Smith said. “To meet her, you would think she didn’t have money. She would refrain from using her air conditioning to save money. One time we were over visiting and Alabama Power had occasion to come into her house for some reason. They asked if she had air conditioning – they were going to get her one.”

When Olson asked Brunson to handle her estate, she told him, “I may have a bit more than people think I have. I want someone to take care of my estate on the basis of what I want done. I want you to do it.”

Making Wishes Come True
As executor of her estate, Brunson’s role was to make Olson’s wishes come true. She was putting the responsibility not only in a fellow church member’s hands – she was relying on a former student from her English class at Murphy High School in the mid-1950s.

Brunson said he always knew he was one of Olson’s favorites, and he thought he knew why.

“Edna was a Swede. She thought Brunson was a Swedish name. It was her idea that anything with a ‘son’ on it was a Swedish name. Also, my father was a dairyman. She had been raised in a rural setting, and I think she valued the way I was raised,” he said.

Their connection continued as members of First Baptist Theodore, and Brunson’s mother-in-law and Olson often traveled with a retired teachers group. Olson’s trips included Cuba, Sweden and the Holy Land, among many other adventures.

When Olson passed away, Brunson discovered just how much work it was to be an executor of an estate – especially for someone who had wide interests, lots of compassion, and a significant estate.

“She gave almost every service organization in Mobile County something,” Brunson said. Her financial gifts went not only to First Baptist Theodore, but also to churches of various denominations in Wilmer and Grand Bay, and the Catholic diocese in Mobile. She gave to organizations that helped underprivileged people, including the Salvation Army. She gave to organizations protecting animals. Her property went to her church and was sold to the Mobile County Public School System, becoming part of the campus of Theodore High School.

The remainder of her estate went to the University of Mobile to establish the Olson-Barnes Endowed Scholarship to assist students from her neighborhood who wished to pursue a major in the field of education. The $258,400 gift is invested and the interest provides scholarships available first to students majoring in education from Alma Bryant, Mary G. Montgomery and Theodore high schools.

One of those students was Nina Bolar.

Teacher of the Year
Bolar credits the University of Mobile School of Education with teaching her not only how to be an educator, but also how to work as a team.

“I wouldn’t know how to be a teacher without the University of Mobile. Just watching (the faculty) and seeing them communicate with each other and the teamwork they had, that helped me a lot. I knew I would have to work with a lot of different personalities,” Bolar said.

Her principal, Dr. Julia Nelson, said Bolar has taken a leadership role as the school’s math coach, leading a learning community that involves peer-to-peer training and side-by-side coaching. She is continuing her education, graduating in May with an Education Specialist degree

Her peers selected her as their school’s 2014 Teacher of the Year.

“I would say that Edna Olson would be proud,” Brunson said.

About the Author

Kathy Dean

Kathy Dean uses her passion for storytelling and "playing with words" to share the stories of people, place and purpose that make the University of Mobile unique. As associate vice president for university communications, she manages media relations, edits the TorchLight alumni magazine, and oversees university communications. A former award-winning journalist, she is a two-time recipient of the Baptist Communicators Association grand prize for feature writing. Kathy and her husband, Chuck, live with three extremely loud miniature schnauzers.