James M. Olson

Image of Jim Olson holding a snake.

James (Jim) Olson was one of the “Morris 13” and the first campus hire in chemistry. Originally hired in 1959 to teach at the West Central School of Agriculture, Olson went on to serve the UMN Morris for over 40 years and played a significant leadership role in the growth and development of the Division of Science and Mathematics. His record of division leadership is unsurpassed, and, in fact, Olson chaired the Science and Math Division for at least a few years in each of the first four decades of UMN Morris history.


born in Bagley, Minnesota on October 9, 1936

graduated from Concordia College, Moorhead, Minnesota

married Nancy Lightfoot

hired to teach chemistry at the WCSA

received his M.S. in inorganic chemistry from North Dakota State University and hired as assistant professor of chemistry at UMN Morris

named Acting Co-Chair of the Division of Science and Mathematics and served for a year

became Acting Chair of Science and Mathematics and served for two years

promoted to associate professor of chemistry at UMN Morris

finished his Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry at the University of North Dakota

named Acting Chair of Science and Mathematics and served two years

became Chair of Science and Mathematics and served until 1991

retired from UMN Morris

Personal Life

James M. (Jim) Olson was born in Bagley, Minnesota on October 9, 1936 to Morgan Arthur and Grace Livdahl Olson. His father, Morgan, was a high school history teacher who later went to work for Midland Cooperatives. Morgan Olson was also active in efforts to revitalize Norwegian American heritage groups and served for a period as president of National Council of Norwegian-American Bygdelags.[1] Jim’s youth was spent  first in Mankato and then Robbinsdale, Minnesota. In 1954 Olson, then a seventeen-year-old Explorer Scout, was featured by the Minneapolis Star newspaper in an half-page promotional piece on news carriers and salespeople.[2]

Jim attended Concordia College, Moorhead and graduated in 1958 with a B.A. in inorganic chemistry.  In 1960 he  earned a M.S. in inorganic chemistry from North Dakota State University, and in 1971 he finished his Ph.D., in inorganic chemistry from the University of North Dakota.[3] 

In 1959 Olson married Nancy Lighfoot.[4] In that same year he was interviewed by Herb Croom, the acting head of the West Central School of Agriculture, and invited to join the school’s science faculty. The position entailed both teaching chemistry and living in and serving as a preceptor for Junior Hall (Pine Hall), a challenging but enjoyable experience for the young married couple. After the Regents of the University announced in the fall of that year the plans to begin a college program on campus, Rod Briggs asked Olson to continue teaching at the not-yet-operational UMN Morris. As a member of the “Morris 13,” Jim Olson went on to play an essential role in the development of the Division of Science and Mathematics at UMN Morris, as well, of course, of his home discipline of Chemistry. Part of his job, at least early on, involved scavenging for used lab and classroom equipment at the Twin Cities campus. In 1967 he was asked to serve as Acting Co-Chair of the Division, a role he held for a year before being named Acting Chair.  All told, Olson served four terms as head of the division, a length of service that totals about 18 years. He retired in 2001.[5]


Research and Teaching

As related above, Herb Croom recruited Olson to teach chemistry at the WCSA. Jim was a graduate of Concordia College, Moorhead, which had a long history of providing instructors for the West Central School of Agriculture. Olson’s training was in inorganic chemistry and much of his teaching was in this area. Included in the courses he taught were General Chemistry, Fundamentals of Chemistry,  Analytical Chemistry, Inorganic Chemistry, and Concepts and Methodology of Physical Science.[6] He substituted at least one year for Jim Togeas in Organic Chemistry and also taught classes intended for future high school science teachers. Colleagues remember Olson as an innovator in the classroom and as someone who pushed for changes in pedagogy and curriculum.[7] 

Most of his research focused on clay mineralogy. Olson has published in the Journal of Environmental Science and Health and Acta Crystallographica.[8]

Community Involvement

Community Involvement

Throughout his career Jim Olson remained dedicated to working with high school teachers and students. For a number of years he participated in judging at local science fairs and helped organize meetings of local middle and high school science teachers.[9] Olson was also committed to providing UMN Morris’s Lutheran students with a rich and meaningful associational life and was a leader in the development of Lutheran Campus Ministry, perhaps UMM Morris’s first student organization.[10]

Campus Contributions

As one of the first faculty in Science and Math, Jim Olson contributed significantly to the development of that division. After the announcement in November 1959 that Morris was to initiate a college curriculum on an experimental basis, Rodney Briggs informed Olson to ”...stay tuned because there‘s gonna be a spot for you there to get this stuff organized.” (Olson interview) “Getting stuff organized” is an especially apt description of Olson’s early role. Traveling to the Minneapolis campus in search of used laboratory equipment, helping create new majors and minors within the division, developing curriculum, hiring young faculty in a very tight and overly competitive job market, planning upgraded facilities were among Olson’s many responsibilities. At the beginning of Olson’s tenure at UMN Morris, the chemistry discipline operated out of the old Engineering Building (now the Welcome Center) and with very rudimentary facilities and equipment.  Also at the beginning the division was only able to offer two majors--mathematics and biology--and Jim Olson played a significant role in growing the division to its present size. Along with Rodney Briggs and Steve Granger, Olson participated in recruiting and hiring new faculty. Hiring was a challenge because the launch of Sputnik encouraged an explosion of interest in the sciences and the job market became extremely tight. The retention of faculty was also a problem as the dynamics of small town life, the effect of distance and the reality of rural isolation encouraged faculty turnover. Olson’s solution was to search for young faculty who knew the Midwest and who had experience as undergraduates on small liberal arts campuses.[11]

After UMN Morris

After his retirement Jim and Nancy Olson moved to Battle Lake, Minnesota. He remains active in the University of Minnesota Morris Retirement Association and continues to participate, albeit from a distance, in campus life.[12] Jim and Nancy Olson have moved to their new home in Battle Lake, MN. Jim wrote that their grandchild is fine and like most retirees can’t find enough hours in a day to get it “all” done.

Deanna Small
Stephen Gross (Editor)
Naomi Skulan (Editor)


[1] “M.A. Olson Dies: led Norwegian Heritage Groups,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, 6 December 1986.
[2] “The Minneapolis Star and Tribune Salute the Boy Scouts of America,” Minneapolis Star and Tribune, 10 February 1954.
[3] James Olson, Curriculum Vitae, 7 April 1998, University of Minnesota, Morris Archives.
[4] “Olson-Lightfoot,” Minneapolis Star and Tribune, 16 August 1959.
[5] Jim Olson, interview by Christopher Butler, 2010, transcript, Promise of the Prairie, University of Minnesota Morris, Morris, MN.  
[6] James Olson, Curriculum Vitae, 7 April 1998.
[7] Jim Togeas, interview by Christopher Butler.
[8] James Olson, Curriculum Vitae, 7 April 1998.
[9] James Olson, Curriculum Vitae, 7 April 1998.
[10]  University Relations, "Lutheran Campus Ministry, Morris's first student organization," October 4, 2010.
[11] Jim Olson, interview by Christopher Butler, 2010, transcript, Promise of the Prairie, University of Minnesota Morris, Morris, MN.
[12] University of Minnesota Morris Retirees’ Association, “UMMRA Info: volume VI, number 2,” Fall 2003.

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