MANKATO — During a performance of the “Minnesota State Mankato Hymn” Tuesday afternoon, Scott Olson couldn’t resist jumping out of his chair.
The departing provost and vice president for academic and student affairs just had to join the MSU Theatre & Dance students in song at the farewell reception in his and his wife’s honor. “Minnesota State we hail to you. Purple and gold we’re ever true.”
Packed into the student union’s Hearth Lounge, Olson’s colleagues and friends said that’s pretty typical of Olson’s personality. He’s enthusiastic, he’s warm and he’s a whole lot of fun, they lined up to say — some more bluntly than others.
“We’re really pissed that Scott is leaving,” said Paul Hustoles, event emcee and chair of Theatre & Dance. “We’re really angry, we’re mad and I think we should have a revolution.”
Olson is leaving MSU after nine years to be president of Winona State University, which several speakers pointed out Tuesday is still in the MnSCU system, so Olson won’t be too far away. But, still, they all found personal and individual ways to tell him how much he’ll be missed during daily life at MSU.
“We have fun almost every day,” said MSU President Richard Davenport. “I want to state, for the record, Scott is the best administrator I’ve ever worked with.”
The few serious moments were broken up with lots of humor. Gifts included shiny purple tennis shoes and a purple top hat, both of which Olson put on immediately. Kelley Olson, Scott’s wife, received a purple cowboy hat. And Davenport gave Olson a book, telling the audience the gift was inspired by Olson’s insatiable “quest for weird knowledge,” a lesser-known aspect of his personality.
“‘Psychiatrists: The Men Behind Hitler.’ I don’t know where you found this, President Davenport,” Olson said. “I will read this with interest.”
Other interesting facts about Olson shared at the program: A nickname assigned by a colleague was Boy Wonder. He’s a movie buff who, early on, wanted to work in the film industry in California. He’s also a great athlete, which includes scuba diving and skiing.
Warren Sandmann, associate vice president for academic affairs, shared a much more well-known fact about Olson, one that most people in the Hearth Lounge seemed to know well: He always gives his undivided attention to whomever he’s speaking, and he genuinely cares about the ideas and concerns of others.
“He is one of the most dynamic, charismatic and compassionate people you will ever meet,” Sandmann said, citing budget cuts several years ago that included faculty and program reductions as an example of how much Olson cares about the university.
“It hurt him. It was hard,” Sandmann said.
But throughout that difficult time, Sandmann said, the MSU community trusted Olson completely.
“People were able to communicate with him, and they trusted he had the university’s best interest and their best interest at heart,” Sandmann said.
Sandmann and others agreed Winona State will be lucky to have Olson and that he’ll do a fantastic job as president. But attempts still were made in jest to dissuade him from going.
“Look at the sky out there,” Hustoles said, pointing out the windows at the blue sky and sunshine. “I just checked my phone. It’s raining in Winona.”
Toward the end of the program, during a medley that included U2 and Bruce Springsteen songs (his favorite), Olson turned around to sing to his friends.
“You ask me if there’ll come a time when I grow tired of you. Never, my love. Never, my love.”
When finally called to the stage, Olson kept his closing remarks brief.
“Words usually come pretty easy to me, but a thing like this leaves me pretty speechless,” he said, recalling the opportunity to come work at MSU in 2003 as “irresistible.” “In some ways it seems like yesterday. In some ways, I wish it were yesterday.”