Jill and Jerry Olson both grew up in West Central Minnesota. Jerry Ray Olson was born June 10, 1958 in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, to Helen and Oliver Olson. Oliver was a banker and Helen worked at the local general store, Inky’s. The youngest of five by eight years; Jerry spent much of his childhood with several “parents.” His oldest sister was 20 when he was born. Jerry lived in the same house in Barrett, population 365, until he went to college. At that house there were five baskets. Three were outside and when he was five two were added in the basement, one at each end.
For six weeks in the spring of 1964, at age five, Jerry attended Kindergarten in the Legion Hall since there wasn’t a room available at the school. In the fall of 64, he started first grade in the Barrett Public School. Jerry always did well in school and participated in every sport offered. During the athletic banquet his senior year he was honored for earning 20 letters during his high school years.
Jill Leslie Nelson was born on October 26, 1958 in Breckenridge, MN the second of eight children to Elwood and Beverly Nelson. Her parents were teachers and she lived in two small West Central Minnesota communities, Campbell and Wheaton before moving to Barrett as a seventh grader. It was an adjustment.
She has always been a fan of the outdoors and spent most of her childhood summers in northern Minnesota at a very rustic family cabin. Swimming lessons were required for all of the kids in the family, in the local pool, not heated, in early June if they wanted to swim at the lake. It was a great motivator. Years later, she was the one teaching the lessons in a cold lake or a warm pool.
Barrett was such a small school that most all students needed to participate in many activities in order for the school to offer them. Both Jill and Jerry participated in band, choir, class plays, basketball and track. Jerry also played football and baseball. FFA, volleyball, and cheerleading also occupied Jill.
In May 1976, Jerry graduated from Barrett High School with 17 others, many of the same kids with whom he started kindergarten. Jerry was recruited to play football, baseball and basketball collegiately. Rich Glass at the University of Minnesota, Morris eventually persuaded him to attend and play basketball at the school only 20 miles from his hometown. He also played baseball at UMM for four years. Jerry loved his years at UMM playing basketball for three years before his first and career ending knee surgery during his first senior year. UMM was a NCAA Division III institution but played in a conference made up of DII teams also.
During those years they were a very close and successful team. They advanced to the NCAA regional tournament each year. This group of guys is still close, communicate regularly and get together on an annual basis. This team was inducted into the first class of the UMM Hall of Fame, in 1998. In the midst of basketball and baseball Jerry earned a B.A. in Elementary Education and a B.A. in Physical Education in 1981.
After graduating from Barrett High School in 1977, Jill also enrolled at UMM. While at UMM Jill ran distance on the track team and qualified for AIAW (the women’s counterpart to the NCAA at that time) regionals each year. Always in a hurry, Jill graduated with a B.A. in Human Services in 1980.
In July of that year Jerry & Jill got married. They continued to live in Morris that year while Jerry finished his degrees and Jill worked in an elementary school.
After graduation Jerry received an offer to teach in the Hoffman-Kensington elementary school and be the head coach of basketball and baseball and an assistant football coach. As the newest teacher in the school during a tight economy Jerry had the opportunity to teach sixth grade, third grade, fourth grade and third grade again his last year. He loved teaching but his last year he had 29 kids in his classroom, nine who had ADHD, and he would come home looking a little gray each day. That situation made it easier to get on with his “four year plan.” His teams won the school’s first two conference basketball championships, set 25 team records, and earned the highest winning percentage in school history.
During the time they lived in Hoffman, Jill was the Social Service Director at the Hoffman Care Center. In December of 1983 they were blessed with their first daughter, Raelee.
Only three weeks before they left Hoffman for their adventure in Montana, Randa, their second daughter was born. The fall of 1985 Jerry started grad school at Montana State University in addition to his collegiate coaching career as the graduate assistant. He finished all of his classes by the next fall and was promoted to what was then referred to as the “part-time” assistant. There was nothing part-time about it. The Bobcats earned trips to the NCAA Tournament in 1986 and the NIT Tournament in 1987. During those two years in Bozeman, Jill taught swimming lessons, worked in a sporting goods store and at a group home for developmentally disabled adults.
The following year Jerry accepted a position as head basketball and baseball coach and physical education instructor at Iowa Wesleyan College in Mount Pleasant, IA. After two years at Iowa Wesleyan, he coached at Winfield-Mount Union High School. While they were living in Mount Pleasant, Jill worked as a social worker and then as a supervisor of social workers at the Iowa Department of Human Services.
Then in April 1990 an opportunity to become the head women’s basketball coach and physical education instructor at Panhandle State University surfaced. During their first four years in Goodwell Jill worked for Western Plains Youth and Family Services initially as an outreach counselor and later as the program director. Some highlights from those four years with the Aggies were a team GPA of 3.38, setting over 68 school records, finishing third and sixth in the nation in scoring, being ranked fourth in the final national poll and ending the season in 1994 attending the national NAIA tournament and finishing in the Elite Eight. Probably the most eventful portion of the trip occurred after the team lost. Jerry and Jill got to experience the hospitality and expertise of the Salem, Oregon, medical community when at the age of 35, Jerry had a heart attack and a quadruple bypass. During that challenging time people in that area and especially the people of the Oklahoma Panhandle supported the Olson’s in so many ways. They are sure the people of OPSU and the Goodwell area have no idea how positively they impacted the Olson family during that time.
In June of 1994, Jerry accepted an offer to return to MSU as the top assistant for the DI program. His former fellow assistant Mick Durham was now the head coach and making the offer. During this second stint at MSU the Bobcats were Big Sky champions several times, made the NCAA Tournament, and the NIT Tournament once. When returning to Bozeman, Jill initially worked as a Volunteer Coordinator for a child abuse prevention mentoring program, matching volunteers from the community to at risk students in three elementary schools in Bozeman. The last five years she made the switch to managing an oral surgery practice. During these years she frequently taught CPR and First Aid classes for the Red Cross.
After 10 years at Montana State, Jerry was getting the itch to lead his own program again. Dr. Manning contacted him to let him know OPSU had a coaching job open and Jerry made the trip down to discuss it. It didn’t take much convincing and he signed a contract to be the women’s head coach and athletic director that day. Jerry moved down to the Panhandle shortly after and Jill came a couple months later. That was almost 13 years ago and both Jerry and Jill have been working at OPSU since then.
Jill began her employment with OPSU as the student events coordinator before moving to the administrative assistant to the president, Dr. Bryant, a year later. In 2007 Jerry switched to the men’s basketball coach and in 2011 gave up the athletic director position.
Jerry and Jill’s daughter Raelee is a 2009 graduate of OPSU. Raelee is an admissions counselor at Panhandle, and she and her daughter, Helen, live in Goodwell. Their daughter Randa Stone is a kindergarten teacher and lives with her husband David in Spokane, Washington.
The Olson’s truly appreciate the opportunity working at PSU has given them to get to know so many exceptional students, staff, faculty, and community members. Living in multiple locations has given them a unique perspective. They believe better people will not be found anywhere. The people of this area are some of the hardiest, friendliest, most generous people they have encountered. They feel they have been very blessed by Panhandle State and the people of this area.
Jerry and Jill are humbled by this honor and would like to thank the Panhandle State Association of Alumni and Friends.