Friends say Olson's legacy is more than the business, philanthropy that is known

WILLMAR -- The world remembers Earl B. Olson as a man who founded a company in a rural Minnesota community, named it after his daughter and made it a global leader in a fiercely competitive and innovative industry.

WILLMAR -- The world remembers Earl B. Olson as a man who founded a company in a rural Minnesota community, named it after his daughter and made it a global leader in a fiercely competitive and innovative industry.

His friends remember the founder of Jennie-O Turkey Store for so much more: A small town guy who loved his hometown with a passion, an honest, hard working but extremely competitive businessman, and a mentor and friend who cared about people.

Perhaps most of all, friends remember Earl B. Olson as a generous man who preferred to keep his philanthropy private.

"He was a very generous man,'' said Greg Hilding, president of Bremer Bank.

Some of his largesse is well known, but that is only because some of the benefactors insisted on it, he noted.


Olson served for 43 years on the board of directors for the Bank of Willmar, now Bremer Bank. Hilding said Olson was a board member who cut to the heart of issues and worked hard, but was always personable.

"He was a very positive person,'' said Hilding, echoing a theme from many others.

He also described Olson as someone who was always proud of Willmar and Kandiyohi County. Jim Rieth worked alongside Olson for 11 years as company president of Jennie-O after its merger with Hormel. He remembers those years as the best in his career, thanks to his association with Olson. He considered Olson a mentor.

"He was like a father to me,'' Rieth said.

Olson loved to help entrepreneurs get started. Rieth remembers a steady procession of people coming to Olson's office for help, and finding it. Once, Olson walked into Rieth's office with another person and announced that the two of them were going to help the man buy a farm elevator.

The business owner helped political leaders from both parties get their start too, according to Rieth. If the visitor struck Olson as honest and well-intended, they could count on Olson's support, he explained.

"He always treated people right,'' Rieth said. "He had a great sense of what was important to people.''

Dale Nelson started Nelson International in 1952, about the time that Olson launched his own company. Olson needed trucks, and Nelson needed work. The two forged both a business relationship and a friendship that have lasted a lifetime.


Nelson said he remembers Olson most of all for his honesty. "You didn't need his signature because his word was good,'' said Nelson.

He said that both he and Olson faced their business challenges through the years, and each helped the other.

He said Olson's business strengths were many. "He always figured out a way to get it done.'' He also credits Olson with knowing the importance of hiring good people.

Most of all, Olson was a very competitive businessman. "He worked harder than the competition,'' said Nelson.

He was very goal oriented and competitive, said Hilding of Olson. "He wanted to be number one.''

Yet Olson never put himself as number one. He always engaged other people in conversations in which he asked how they were doing, and made little mention of himself.

"He cared about the people he worked with. They were like another family to him,'' said Hilding.

"His legacy went well beyond his financial contributions. The man touched many lives with his entrepreneurship, inspiration and leadership throughout the region," said Sherry Ristau, Southwest Initiative Foundation president.


"He will sorely be missed,'' said Ken Warner, executive director of the Willmar Lakes AreaChamber of Commerce.

Warner will always remember Olson for his modesty. Despite having donated the funds to develop the Earl B. Olson board room at the Chamber offices, Olson would never use the room without first asking Warner for permission. "And then he would thank me for letting him use the room,'' Warner said.

Olson's business success and loyalty to his hometown have made Willmar what it is today, according to Nelson. Hilding said there was no doubt that Olson always wanted the world to know that Willmar was the home of Jennie-O Turkey.

While he and others believe that the company will long be known as Olson's legacy here, Nelson said it was Olson's spirit that represented his greatest gift to the community. "We lost a friend,'' Nelson said. "That's what it is.''

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