His friends just call him "Ole"
by Sherrie Bond
Do you ever stop and consider the number of people who have walked through your life, each leaving a bit of themself with you forever? Maybe it’s a cute joke they’ve told, a silly expression, or a glow of friendship each time they cross your thoughts? Boy, I sure have (and some of ‘em I’d just as soon forget), but one person comes to mind immediately as sit here at my desk. Tall and lanky, decades of experience etched on his face, but with an ever present twinkle in his eyes and a grin that welcomes you into a conversation. This is the mental image of my dear friend, Eldon Olin.
Many of you have made Ole’s acquaintance at the Oregon Logging Conference where he and his wife, Bunny, tended a booth filled with his artwork for years on end. His work is renown and his talent unlimited, but I’m a little ahead of my story. You see, Ole didn’t “train” as an artist. He didn’t go to a fancy school or rub elbows with the “nouveau riche” nor did he envision a future artistically depicting day to day life of a logger, the beauty of dense forests nor the history of the timber industry in the great Northwest.
Born in 1921, Ole was typical of guys his age. He learned the meaning of common sense, recognized his responsibilities, pitched in however he could help out and set his course for a life in the timber industry. Times were tough back then. In 1929, the Great Depression struck down any plans or fantasies one might have imagined and everyone hunkered down, taking any kind of work available and age wasn’t a factor. The Nation was brought to its knees as unemployment rose to over 25% and rural industries (cash crops, mining and logging) suffered the greatest hits. In the U.S., unemployment and financial hardship remained status quo from about 1930 through the mid-1940s.
Amid efforts to provide jobs, Roosevelt’s administration introduced the New Deal, creating several federally sponsored work projects. Among those was the Civilian Conservation Corps. Ole jumped at the chance to become a “CCC Boy” and the ability to provide financial help to his family along with three million other young, unmarried men. Money earned in the regimented camps was divided between the worker and his parents, with the lion’s share being sent back home. The Boys received five bucks and their parents got twenty-five. Among the endeavors accomplished between 1933 and 1941, the Cees planted over three billion trees in reforestation projects, they constructed eight hundred parks and upgraded most state parks already in existence. They improved wildfire fighting methods and built a network of service buildings and roads. The young workers, seventeen to twenty eight years old, truly blazed a trail for today’s forest stewardship. Felling cedar was Ole’s job and the wood was used for many of the campground projects. Evidence of the construction and repair can be witnessed throughout the Nation even today.
It was also during this stretch that Ole’s artistic talent was recognized and he became a sign painter at the camp shop and also filled many requests of “make a picture of me” from the guys who became life-long friends. I wonder how many families still have those hand created portraits with no idea that a young, dedicated timber faller melded pencil and paper into the likeness.
Following his enlistment with the CCCs around 1938, Ole headed home to the Oakridge, Oregon area and took a job cutting brush for his future brother-in-law who was a timber cruiser. Being a brush-whacker wasn’t all that appealing and neither was being the “mule”, packing the supplies in to the campsite. Our friend knew he could do something better than that and it wasn’t long before he learned to “pace” (a term for measuring distance.) From that time on he learned step by step (with no pun intended) how to accurately pace-out a quarter mile, run compass and eventually learn to map. Unlike the CCC wages, Ole was taking home a “cool” five bucks a day in his new position. A hefty sum in those days, but Ole had his eye on becoming a timber cruiser.
About that same time he also had his eye on a little cutie named Bernice. They married in 1942 (celebrating their seventieth anniversary this year), but it wasn’t long before Uncle Sam interrupted the bliss and got his pound of salt from Ole, drafted to join in the fray during WW II. He served in the South Pacific as well as Europe. I recall a story he related to me long ago about his time in the small country of Luxembourg. He and his Platoon were searching for a place to hole-up out of the bone-chilling cold of winter when they found a modest pub with family quarters overhead. They settled themselves into a tiny community theater attached to the rear of the building where they found warmth and shelter from the bitterly cold storm. The family welcomed the GIs and generously provided room and board to them, hopeful of the salvation the U.S. Troops would bring them. It wasn’t long before the proprietor’s daughter took note of Ole’s drawings and asked her Mother to request a portrait of her. This was rather out of the ordinary for the young Soldier, but with his Commander giving the nod, he went to work on the picture keeping in mind all the while that his assignment was preventing his troops from personally shaking hands with Old Man Winter!
When victory was declared, Ole headed home to his family and back to work in the woods, remaining eager to resume his climb up the ladder of becoming a timber cruiser; a career which he later enjoyed for forty-three years. Over the course of time spent in the woods, Ole developed a keen eye for nature and wildlife from an artistic point of view, tucking moments in the back of his brain that would later find their way into his drawings. I once asked Ole if he considered leaving his cruising job and becoming a professional artist back then, to which he replied, “Hell no! I had a family to raise! People depending on me!” I smile as I write this as that statement is a true “Ole-ism” and an example of that “common sense and responsibility” I mentioned earlier.
There came a day though (a few decades back) when Ole had the time available to begin his calling as an artist. His total recollection of images he saw during his lifetime in the woods flowed out of his heart and onto his canvas. Life-like depictions and circumstances so realistic his audience could smell the pitch, hear the rushing water of a turbulent river, know the danger of a hang-up, the frustration of an over-weight ticket or feel the pain and suffering of the logger portrayed in (my favorite painting) Monday Morning; moments in time, frozen for eternity. It is no wonder his artwork is recognized today as the most authentic portrayals of logging in the Pacific Northwest. (If you haven’t experienced Ole’s work, you can visit the Olin and Olin web site at www.eldonolin.com or Google the Springfield, Oregon Museum at which his art was featured in a month long gallery exhibit viewed by hundreds of visitors.)
However, the gallery display isn’t the only recognition bestowed on this fine man. In October, Ole was chosen to participate in the South Willamette Valley Honor Flight to Washington D.C. along with other WW II Veterans from the area and at which they were commended for their service and sacrifice. Accompanied by his daughter, Bonnie, he was able to tour the remarkable monuments dedicated to the Nation’s Servicemen and Women. I can only imagine the emotional impact the trip held for Ole as I know when I learned of the flight, I was awestruck by the organization’s dedication and commitment to these Heroes. (Since the inception of the Honor Flight Network, 81,348 War Veterans have been escorted to Washington, D.C. to participate in the ceremony through the Network’s efforts and that of 13,800 volunteers involved in the process.) From my perspective, the most incomparable event that takes place during the trip is the “Mail Call”. It replicates those times in the midst of the War when receiving mail, the young warriors could connect with “home”, their loved ones and for just a moment or two in the midst of the chaos, the thick of the battle, could absorb the tender feelings of those who longed for their return. It was a privilege for me to take part in the mail call and thank Ole and his comrades for their dedicated service, commitment and devotion to our country and its freedom.
I have only touched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to telling the story of Eldon “Ole” Olin as he is a man of many “hats” and he wears each one well. He married a wonderful lady, raised an honorable family and dedicated his working life to the timber industry and its longevity. He is a red-blooded American, a Patriot and a man of his word. He has lived a long and fruitful life as he inches up on his ninety-second birthday. He has seen the best in people and more than likely the worst, but that hasn’t deterred him from positive thinking, his accomplished goals or love of life. There is so much to be written about this man who as always reminded me of the actor, Gary Cooper; a tall drink of water with a heart as big as all outdoors! I want to close by adding it has been my pleasure, Ole, to know you, to love you, but most of all to call you my Friend.