Although David Olsen was “Dad” to his sons and “Mr. Olsen” to his students in the North Shore School District, his constantly joyful demeanor earned him the nickname “Jolly Ollie” to everyone on the North Shore.
“Once that name popped out, it just stuck,” his oldest son, Craig, said. “People would refer to him as Jolly Ollie because he was an incredibly happy guy and had a lot to offer the community.”
Craig said his father’s jovial disposition lasted his entire life until July 20, when he died peacefully in his sleep in hospice not far from his home in Williamsburg, Va. He was 88.
Olsen was born on Jan. 26, 1932 in Glen Head, the youngest of five children to Olaf, a Norwegian immigrant, and Margaret Olsen, an Irish immigrant. Craig said his father had a happy and active childhood while living in the house Olaf built with his own hands the decade prior. He played clarinet in school bands throughout his time at Glen Head Elementary, North Shore Junior High and Glen Cove High School, and worked many odd jobs as a teenager.
After graduated from high school in 1949, Olsen pursued a degree in education at SUNY Oneonta, the first person in his family to go to college. His father had an atypical college experience, Craig said. He said most people see photos of their parents in college holding beers and attending parties, whereas all college photos of his father saw him with books. Craig said his father’s passion for history stemmed from him being a first-generation American, as he loved researching the back story of his country his parents came to as a means of bettering their family.
Olsen graduated college in 1953, which was toward the end of the Korean War. He realized his draft number was likely to be called upon, so he enlisted in the Army and was sent to Fort Lee in Petersburg, Va. The Army decided to put his teaching degree to use, as he acted as an instructor for younger recruits, teaching them anything the Army needed him to teach.
Although he never went overseas, Olsen found himself taking a personal adventure while in Petersburg. There, he met Bettie Jean Tucker, a Petersburg native and a performer with the United Service Organization who visited Fort Lee. The two hit it off immediately, and Olsen brought her back to Glen Head, where they were married on Aug. 18, 1956.
The couple had three sons: Craig in 1959, Scott in 1962 and Drew in 1964. Craig said their father was as supportive as could be, taking interest in everything his sons did. This, Craig said, was quite the accomplishment as they were always doing something, whether it be sports, school band or clubs.
Drew said their father always found time for his sons, attending every wrestling match, lacrosse game or band concert he could.
Shortly after he returned home from Virginia, Olsen became a teacher in the North Shore School District, teaching at both Sea Cliff Elementary and North Shore Junior High. Drew said the care and attention he provided to his sons carried over into his job as well.
“He was a kind caring guy and he loved kids,” he said. “He was born to be a teacher.”
Jill Mennicken, a Greenvale native and childhood friend of Craig’s, said Olsen was always very cheerful as he taught her seventh grade social studies class. She said he was big on celebrating cultural differences, recalling an assignment he had given his students to bring in a special recipe from their places of heritage.
“He was enthusiastic,” she said. “He loved history, he loved kids and he was an upbeat guy.”
In recognition of his superb teaching abilities, Olsen became the principal of Sea Cliff Elementary in 1975, a position he held until his retirement in 1987.
Olsen’s passion for education was not restricted to school buildings. He spent his summers teaching children how to swim at the Tappen Pool in Glenwood Landing. Craig said his father was an “icon of the pool,” known for his signature safari helmet he always wore.
Olsen also taught new Americans how to speak English during night school classes despite not knowing any other languages himself. His ability to connect with people and teach them even though he did not speak their languages was a testament to his teaching ability, Craig said.
Upon his retirement, David and Bettie moved to Williamsburg to enjoy retirement in a place rich with history. Olsen gave tours of Colonial Williamsburg as a guide with Bruton Parish Church, not letting retirement stop him from teaching others about his passion for the past.
Still, Drew said his father never truly left Glen Head in his mind. Even in his final days, Olsen’s thoughts kept returning to the hamlet he called home for so long.
“When you get down to it, in the end, it’s all he really knew,” Drew said. “He moved down to Virginia and enjoyed a retirement there, but ingrained in his brain somehow was that little town of Glen Head.”