June 5, 1930 – November 27, 2014
VICTOR B. OLASON —AN APPRECIATION
Born Vigfus Bjorgvin Olason in Seattle on June 5, 1930, he was of Icelandic heritage, a son of Vigfus Bjorgvin and Carolina Stephanson Olason. For years, I thought I might be the only other person in the Agency aware that “Victor” was a nom de preference, a nom de convenience.
Vic was my oldest and dearest friend in the Foreign Service. He was an example of what USIA’s Junior Office Program was supposed to produce through boots on the ground seasoning, leading step by step to leadership in international public affairs. He served in eight countries over a 36-year career. He learned five languages and, when he retired in 1995, only four years before USIA disappeared, he was one of only four officers with the rank of career minister. If memory serves, he had become one of only two officers to be Area Director of two regions.
He came to USIA knowing journalism from the ground up. As an undergraduate, he covered campus news for the Seattle Times. He became editor of the student newspaper at the University of Washington and the Times hired him after graduation to walk a beat, be a police reporter and work the city desk. Vic could walk into a newsroom anywhere and be in familiar territory. Foreign journalists often could sense this and responded. He was a friend of many foreign correspondents, whose legitimate functions he understood and, when necessary, helped Ambassadors to understand. He was helpful to newsmen when he could and earned their respect when he couldn’t.
We met when we joined USIA in September 1959 in a JOT class of 11, which produced three area directors and a Counselor of the Agency. We cut a training class to see Khruschev arrive as a guest at Blair House. As with many of you here with most of the 20th century on your hard drives, Vic saw, sometimes with an active role, many of the big events and players of the era.
His USIA career started in Santiago, where Barbara White and Hew Ryan, future mandarins of the Agency, were role models. Come the Kennedy Administration, Vic was named to a new group of Alliance for Progress information officers, with an office in the AID mission, working with Peruvian media to interpret the new look in U.S.-Latin American relations. Those relations included one of the largest initial groups of Peace Corps volunteers, headed in Lima by his friend Frank Mankiewicz, a future political mandarin in the making.
When we joined the Foreign Service, the book on ideal career trajectories saw officers in the afternoon of their careers with an area of primary and one of secondary emphasis. It looked like Vic was to major in Interamerican affairs after a cultural assignment in Guatemala, graduate Latin American studies at the University of New Mexico and two years as Central American desk officer. But then he won the job as Information Officer in Germany, where he spent five years. International attention followed when, in 1974, an AP photo moved worldwide of Vic and a Marine guard taking the photo of newly resigned President Nixon from the walls of the Embassy.
Bonn service got him his first PAO job in Iceland, the ancestral home. It also earned his three children long hours a day on school buses to and from school at the U.S. airbase, still fresh in their memories decades later. They credit me with saving them when Director Jim Keogh let me choose my Deputy Area Director, and Vic returned to Latin America in time for the Panama Canal negotiations, with attendant foreign and domestic furor. He succeeded me as Director.
Arabic language training and Counselor of Embassy in Cairo designation followed before returning to an illustrious career in European affairs as Executive Director of the Presidential Commission for the German-American Tricentennial. Then came a hitch as Deputy Chief Inspector, then returning to the Continent directing public affairs in the U.S. Mission to NATO in Brussels. Vic then ran the Agency’s worldwide Press and Publications Service before the capstone of being named European Area Director, with its 71 field posts. He reveled in the job, once saying that going to work was fun because “you never know what’s going to walk through the door in the morning.” He topped that with a final valedictory of three years in Rome.
I’ll leave to others to flesh out the glories of Europe, though we visited in Bonn, Brussels and Rome. Mike Eisenstadt had known Vic for years and preceded him as Director for Europe. He wrote, “I always respected his careful, invariably accurate, and low key judgments and his kind and courteous way of dealing with others. He was a good friend and colleague.” Another friend wrote of him, “Reticent to speak as he was, he was like E.F.Hutton: when he spoke, others listened.”
Lest anyone be lulled by countless tales of a gentle, low key gentleman, a distinguished diplomat who looked the part, Vic did have a wild oats, paint-outside-the-box phase of his life.
In the summer of 1957, he and Dody quit their jobs and, with another couple, went to Europe, bought a little car, and spent six months touring 11 countries. That may have opened windows on a much larger world because in the year after returning to the Seattle Times, he and USIA found each other, where we met.
Rest in peace, friend.
Remembering Vic Olason
We became good friends when, both relatively new to our foreign service careers, we were posted to Guatemala, he with USIS, I with State. Our children were similarly aged, and our wives hit it off admirably.
And it was during that first tour that so many experiences were shared. They became the foundation of a personal friendship which lasted to the very end. In fact, I visited Vic at the rehab center a few days before, and despite his gloomy circumstances, we ended by sharing a few chuckles, reminiscing about events of the past. He even reminisced gleefully about one Guatemalan event which we often recalled and recounted to others…
Vic had a bad back, and as a result of one of our spirited touch football games (ah, yes—we were all inspired by the Kennedys…), he most unfortunately damaged his back again. For several months he tried therapy and medications, but ultimately it was decided he should be evacuated to Walter Reed for better diagnosis and treatment. He would be flown out shortly.
Unfortunately, Guatemala’s medical services were somewhat rudimentary and equipment sometimes sparse. Ambulances were in short supply. None was available to transport him to the airport. The vehicle which came to do that task was, alas, a rather elderly hearse. No one seemed to mind, since at least he could lie down for the brief cross-city trip to the airport.
As the vehicle proceeded through the city, Vic recounted, he happened to look out the window. To his surprise and amusement, he noticed many people would stop walking as the hearse passed by, and they would bow their heads and bless themselves. Then Vic’s sense of humor took over: he decided to wave to the people…well, you can imagine the rest of the story and reactions that caused.
So my last memory of Vic is of him with a broad smile on his face and a wave of his hand, as I bade him farewell that day in the center. It was so typical of the Vic I knew, obviously still cherishing fond memories of past experiences, both big and small.
He was such fun to have around; so interesting and knowledgeable to talk to about serious and not-so-serious matters, so kind and thoughtful of others, and always willing to help with a cheerful smile. We never shared a posting again, other than Washington, so our friendship was personal rather than official. But that didn’t make it any less profound.
I know I will always miss him. He was a true prince of a man.