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Irving Olson, artist, world traveler, dies at 102

obit_irving-olsonIrving J. Olson, 102, entrepreneur, photographer and philanthropist, died at his home in Oro Valley on Oct. 1, 2016. Born on Nov. 26, 1913, in New Britain, Conn., he chalked up the first of many lifetime achievements: recognition by the governor as the heaviest newborn in Connecticut that year at 13 pounds, 6 ounces.

His family moved to Akron, Ohio, where at age 6 he vowed to become financially successful and travel the world. Although his spotty academic career at the University of Akron ended shortly after it began, his reputation was redeemed on his 100th birthday when the university presented him with an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree.

During his decades in Akron, Olson built a one-man radio repair business into Olson Electronics, a coast-to-coast 95-store chain and mail order business.

After retiring at age 50, he and his wife, Ruth, traveled the world, logging 135 countries and recording the people and sights they encountered in photographs. Ruth, his wife of 71 years, predeceased him in 2011.

A man of many interests, Olson built steam engines and clocks from scratch with a metal lathe. Switching to a wood lathe, he made bowls from blocks of exotic woods.

But it was his lifelong passion for photography that earned him international awards, articles in prominent photography magazines and numerous one-man shows.  He was the first amateur photographer invited to have a one-man exhibit in Grand Central Terminal in New York City.

At 79, Olson embraced digital technology and at 98, became widely known for his development of water drop photographs, with almost 2,000 Facebook followers looking forward to his daily post. His photos appear in galleries, corporate boardrooms, hospitals, museums, textbooks and private collections worldwide.

Olson and his wife moved to Tucson about 18 years ago, after visiting Kathryn Unger and her husband, David, here.

Unger, immediate past president of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, explains that she grew up in Akron and knew Olson all her life — in fact, she was born on his 30th birthday. “My parents were friends of Ruth and Irving,” she says. Her own friendship with the Olsons deepened after she hosted them at a Passover seder in the 1970s.

The Olsons always felt that they should have young friends, says Unger, because as they aged, their contemporaries would pass away, and also because “young people were more exciting.”

“We traveled all over the world with them,” including Canada, France and Israel, she says.

Unger recalls the Olsons’ prominence in the Akron Jewish and cultural communities, where they received numerous honors.

In both Akron and Tucson, Olson “used his artistic expression to connect,” she says, adding that “his engaging manner was something that just captivated people. He was funny; he enjoyed every minute of life.”

Olson provided the majority of funds to launch the Federation’s satellite office in Oro Valley in 2012. When asked, says Unger, “he immediately said yes — what he said was that he just wanted the assurance that there would be robust programming and that it would attract lots of Northwest Jewish residents.”

Anne Lowe, who retired last year as director of the Federation’s Northwest Division, says, “Irving was a gentleman of the old school, always impeccably dressed, always ready with a humorous story to tell, always graciously generous …. He was our financial catalyst, and he did it with joy in his heart. I will miss his friendship and good will tremendously.”

Olson was inspiring, says Stuart Mellan, president and CEO of the Federation. “His positive approach, his energy and his zest for life had to influence everyone who met him.”

Olson was a member of Temple Emanu-El since moving to Tucson. In recent years, he lived independently at Splendido, a life plan community.

In addition to his wife, Olson was predeceased by his sister Pauline and brothers Sidney, Albert and Philip. He is survived by his son, Stephen (Laura) Olson of San Francisco, Calif., and daughter, Carolyn (Michael) Stelman of Oro Valley, six grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

A private memorial service will be held in Oro Valley.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona and the Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra.

(An obituary submitted by Carolyn Stelman provided essential details for this report.)