When Calling Met Compassion: How One Augustana Alumnus is Making an Impact
Written by Senior Director of Alumni Engagement Joel Gackle
When you leave home and begin college, finding a sense of belonging can take time. While the transition is rather seamless for some, others search longer for the comfort that comes with deep connection. For Dayle Olson ‘74, Augustana proved to be a place where he would heal and walk through pain, simultaneously. At one particularly difficult moment, Olson considered leaving Augustana, and Pr. A. Richard Peterson, ‘Pastor Pete’, asked him to grab lunch. If Olson was indeed leaving, the college chaplain had a question. “What do you want to take with you when you leave Augie?” A broken Olson quickly replied, “Compassion.” Olson knew, even in his own brokenness, that his life needed to be dedicated to helping others. He refers to that moment as his “compassion promise.”
A cruel reality can be that healing is impossible if first there isn’t brokenness. Olson grew up in Fort Dodge, Iowa, living a nearly idyllic childhood. His family was involved in the community and in their church. He admired that his parents “saw value in everyone, and saw that each individual has extreme worth.” The middle of three children, Olson often played the role of mediator in his family.
Olson still remembers the moment his idyllic childhood innocence ended “like it happened yesterday.” The phone rang around 4:30 p.m., and it was the new minister at their church.
Olson said, “It wasn’t unusual, because my dad was involved with the church ... I heard a knock on the door, and ran downstairs because I wasn’t sure if anyone had answered the door. I immediately saw the minister standing with a military official at the door.”
Olson’s brother, Roger, had joined the Navy and served as a hospital corpsman embedded with the Marines. At 20, he stepped on a landmine in Vietnam just 10 weeks into deployment. While Olson struggled with his brother’s death, his younger sister Marilyn, who idolized Roger, “just broke.”
If Olson played the role of fixer during good times, he ramped it up further in mourning — while he felt alone.
“As a teenager, when there is a sibling death, you can’t rely on your parents to talk, because they are (in mourning). You find out quickly, kids your age aren’t able to talk to you about it. So you kind of keep it to yourself,” said Olson.
As high school graduation neared, Olson began considering colleges but wasn’t sure if he could leave his sister and parents alone. His parents were insistent on his going, and when he stepped on Augustana’s campus for his visit, it just felt right.
As Olson describes it, “Augie discovered me, I didn’t discover it. The energy just drew me there.”
Olson looked at college as a necessity, not as a restart. Even though Augustana captured him, he tried to think of every scheme possible to keep him from leaving home. When fall semester finally began, he remembers hugging his parents and his sister goodbye, and not looking back. He immediately took to his floor and his friends. There was a newfound energy, and he loved it!
One thing Olson really loved at Augustana was the holiday season. After his brother’s death, his family tried to celebrate, but “it was as if a puzzle piece was always missing.” Vespers and other gatherings seemed to bring everyone together, and bring the year to a close with peace and joy. However, if the Christmas season brought his favorite Augie memories, the new year brought his most challenging.
During J-Term of his junior year, Olson met tragedy again. He remembers the phone call in Solberg Hall from his friend Wendy, who was Pastor Pete’s daughter. She asked him to come downstairs where she was waiting with her dad. She handed Olson a piece of paper with his sister’s name on it and told him to call a phone number. When he reached the number — the hospital in Fort Dodge, Iowa, — Olson was told his sister was walking home and was struck by a car that had run off the road.
Olson was able to catch an early morning flight to Des Moines, Iowa, the next day, and as soon as he saw his dad, he knew Marilyn had died. A large group of friends from Augustana drove to the funeral, and it was decided Olson would go back to campus with them. He happened to be taking a class from Dr. Clara Lee, and she sought him out. “She was just … a kind soul. She was key (in beginning my healing) while at Augie.” She and her husband Dr. J. Earl Lee invited him to their home for meals, and demonstrated the kindness that marked much of his time at Augustana.
As J-Term break drew near, Pastor Pete asked him to grab that life-defining lunch. When the word “compassion” fell out of Olson’s mouth, his journey of helping others was just beginning. He realized that everyone’s story has challenges, and most of us never know of the hidden chapters.
Originally a music major, his sophomore J-Term internship changed things. Olson spent January working alongside students with developmental disabilities. This experience inspired him to change his major to special education and he says it was the best decision. He also felt like it was part of a larger plan. Just before graduation, the government created new federal requirements for special education. His Augustana education had him well-versed in the programs, and he now had numerous options after graduation. He decided to return home and build the special education program in Fort Dodge. During his six years there, Olson worked with elementary, junior high and high school students. He also helped create a program for chronically disruptive students. Olson recognized it was time to leave and begin another chapter, so he moved to Florida.
In Florida, a position was open for one semester in a special education classroom. Olson loved the students but was searching for other avenues to serve those with developmental disabilities. He spoke to an emerging non-profit organization, and within six months was the associate director. A short time later, he accepted the President/CEO role of the Brevard Achievement Center, an organization that annually serves more than 4,500 children and adults in four states and Puerto Rico. Olson felt he had landed his “dream job,” and served the academy for nearly three decades. Even in retirement, Olson serves others as an adjunct professor to train the next generation of educators.
Reflecting on his career, Olson remarks, “My life would not be the same without Augustana.”
Initially, he thought he would attend a large public university, but realized it was the Augustana community that allowed him to grieve, to grow and to heal.
At his lowest moment, the people of Augustana were there for Olson, and that allowed him to be present for countless others going through their own struggles. An important question from Pastor Pete prompted a divine response. As Olson saw the Brevard Achievement Center grow, he saw his organization meet people in times of need, which helped him live out his compassion promise.
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