There are a precious few people during one's life who, once known, take up a special place for you, and with you, and who then maintain that place over years and decades. Such people affect not only what you may do or believe you can do, but they help you become who you are; they help shape your life, probably without ever really knowing they are doing so. Jim Olsen has been such a person in my life.
Observing him at the 1976 ACB convention for the first time and at first from a distance, I knew immediately that here was a person worth knowing, here was a man of integrity, and here would be a great leader of ACB. I'm not a person easily swayed by first impressions, but this was an exceptional case, for a truly exceptional human being.
Throughout the years since 1976, Jim has exemplified everything that is truly good and the most right about ACB. He has always had a good word to say to or about anybody, even when others might not. His respectful treatment of all, no matter how undeserving, is an enviable trait, and one in which he never faltered. His professionalism has never wavered on behalf of the organization. The services he has rendered for ACB are largely untold and unknown by many within ACB. Jim was not a self-promoter, he did not maneuver in order to promote a personal agenda, and he had a strong sense of what should be more private than public. Probably none of us knows the whole story of what Jim has accomplished for ACB. He guided us into the thrift store business, and managed that business single-handedly for many years. He guided ACB through its financial crisis of the mid-1980s and brought us into a period of greater prosperity than we had ever known previously. Though far less grave, Jim has been invaluable in minimizing the effects of our current financial down-turn and safeguarding our core programs and staff. Though not a founding member, Jim is certainly one of the great and key contributors to our organization's history and deserves a place high on the list of those who are the real heroes of ACB.
There can be a special bond created between the president of an organization and its chief financial officer. My work with Jim between 2001 and now took on a special character over these years. I came to understand at a far deeper level than I ever had known before Jim's commitment to our organization, his strong ties to the people of ACB, his absolute belief in what we do as an organization, his commitment to doing the things for which he was responsible in the most fair, just and equitable manner, his commitment to and belief and pride in each of his family members, and his deep and abiding belief in God. Two weeks ago Friday, Jim had a pacemaker- defibrillator installed after his heart and breathing stopped during a medically supervised examination. On Sunday, two days later, Jim was worshiping at his church. He commented to me: "I wouldn't have felt complete if I hadn't been able to give thanks for my good fortune to still be here." I could write paragraphs about each of these qualities Jim brought to us and I know this list isn't exhaustive by any means. Many, many others in ACB could do the same, and I hope they will.
Since June of 2004, Jim has faced a series of daunting health issues. He faced them all with optimism, with belief in his physicians, with faith that he and everybody around him was doing what they could. His positive spirits and good humor never waned. Last Thursday when he and I talked for a while on the phone (Jim often referred to this as "visiting"), he felt it necessary to give me an update on his health, and I could see he was concerned, and I was concerned for him. Yet in Jim's special way, he did not allow us to leave the conversation with concern on our minds. Rather, we hung up with thoughts about what could and should happen next, and we discussed positive ways for ACB to work on fundraising diversification coming up to convention, and on the positive 2005 budget. Jim's favorite way to end our conversations was with a joke. They were always funny jokes, too. No matter how serious our conversation might have been, we'd end with a laugh and a "talk to you soon." He had the right idea. This lightened the most serious conversations and served to positively pave the way to the next, whether for business or just to catch up with one another in a friendly way.
I left that conversation believing that Jim was going to get free of the health issues that had so plagued him over these many months. He has done that, though in a way that leaves those who loved and cared about him at a loss for what we will do without his presence and constant support. Of course, we will carry on and we will honor the legacy Jim has left for us to nurture and to strengthen. For a little while though, we will do so with sadness and a profound sense of our loss, personal to each of us, and greater still for our organization as a whole. We can do so, though, in the knowledge that Jim now rests in peace which can only be a blessing to him, and that we need not forget his principles or ignore his guidance. In doing this, we pay the greatest respect we can to the legacy of a truly great person and a committed ACB leader.
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