When Bruce Olson ’71 was a youngster in Brooklyn Center, he was not sure what he wanted to be when he grew up. He was sure of a couple of things, though. Active in the Lutheran church, he knew he wanted to attend a Lutheran college, and he preferred being in the city, where ‘60s activism meant things were happening. He also knew that his rural extended family would support him fully, although they could provide little more than love and encouragement.
“I came from a family of modest means. I needed a lot of help,” says Olson. He was grateful to receive an Augsburg legacy scholarship but wished he could have met his benefactors. “I wondered about the history of it, but I never really knew,” he recalls.
The financial cushion served him well. He participated in student government and played all four years on the golf team, which won both conference and state championships. He changed majors four times, abandoning religion after nearly flunking his first theology class, contemplating a future as a high school math teacher, succumbing to the inverse multiple-choice question challenges in his sociology exams, and, finally, plugging a gap one semester with an accounting class.
“I loved it,” he says.
Accounting became his major and business his forte. Right out of college, he worked for a small mobile home finance company, then Josten’s, then a series of successful entrepreneurial ventures in various fields, from insurance and computer services to light manufacturing and retail. He retired at 45 and moved to Florida to play golf, including with such luminaries as Arnie Palmer, but 10 years of retirement sufficed. Now a Kansas City resident, he is back at it, officially the owner and president of the HRS Group.
“I love the challenge of taking a new idea or a new product and making it work,” he says.
Olson also loves the idea of establishing the Olson Peterson Wiggins Scholarship. It is named for his family, including his grandfather Olson, who owned the five-and-dime back in Afton, Iowa; his grandfather Peterson, the town mechanic and truck and tractor repair whiz in Tracy, Minnesota, where he was born; and his near and dear great uncle Walt Wiggins, Walnut Grove’s town barber, who offered shaves and haircuts there along the banks of Plum Creek. And it will grant $25,000 to someone like him.
Olson was delighted to meet the first recipient, Nick Thompson, when the initial $5,000 installment was awarded. “He’s real nice, an athlete who plays baseball and a reasonably good student who aspires to become a physical therapist. But who knows? I told him I hoped he would be lucky enough to hold onto that dream but reminded him that it would be crazy to guarantee it.”
Olson hopes, too, that Thompson will enjoy the same Augsburg benefits he found: a good education, both academic and social, and important lessons about how to conduct one’s life. He also points to Augsburg’s growth and progress, demonstrated in part by the much-expanded economics and business department in the impressive Hagfors Center for Science, Business, and Religion.
“It’s a pay-it-forward sort of story,” Olson says. “I was lucky to come from a great family, get a good education, and have some success in life. Now I’m finding a way to honor my family by honoring somebody else in the same situation.”