April 3, 2003 – Vol. 22 No. 13

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    Leonard Olsen, Professor Emeritus in the Humanities, Ideas and Methods, the College, dies at age 88

    Leonard K. Olsen, who served equally vital roles as a member of the University’s faculty and administration and who embodied its ideal of learning as a lifetime practice, died of Parkinson’s disease Nov. 5, 2002. He was 88.

    Olsen, Associate Professor Emeritus in the Division of the Humanities, the Committee on Ideas & Methods and the College, lived a varied life, serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II and helping to establish colleges in both New York and Amman, Jordan.

    But his deepest commitment was to Chicago and its particular version of the life of the mind, which began with his undergraduate education in the College and continued throughout his retirement in Great Books discussion groups.

    Olsen grew up in Marietta, N.C., and Zumbrota, Minn., and came to Chicago as part of a program that brought talented students from small rural communities to the University.

    He arrived at Chicago during its now-legendary period, when Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler were creating the College for which Chicago is famous, restructuring the curriculum around the Great Books Program.

    Olsen graduated in 1936 and began doctoral studies in political theory under Richard McKeon, becoming an Assistant Professor and completing his preliminary exams before being called to serve as a communications officer on a destroyer in the Pacific. He distinguished himself in the Solomon Islands, New Guinea, the Philippines, Okinawa and Japan, earning the rank of Lt. Cmdr. with five battle stars.

    After working as a researcher for the Great Books Program and Encyclopedia Britannica, he returned to Chicago as a teacher in the Division of the Humanities.

    In 1956, he was hired by the State University of New York to aid in administering and developing their educational programs, beginning in Albany and then helping create a new college for teachers, which eventually became SUNY, Stonybrook.

    With assistance from the Ford Foundation, Olsen spent a year in Amman, Jordan, establishing the principles for a free university there. He then returned to Chicago as Assistant to then Provost Edward Levi. When Levi became President of the University, Olsen continued as his assistant. During this time, Olsen was active in a wide range of administrative activities, including helping to oversee the Institute for International Studies. When Levi departed the University to serve as U.S. Attorney General, Olsen returned to full-time teaching. In 1976, he won the Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching.

    Olsen’s engagement with education continued all of his life, and he could be found leading discussions of Plato and Aristotle at libraries in Greenville, N.C., and Charlottesville, Va., well into his retirement. He said: “I knew from my Chicago days that teaching would have to be my field. I could be satisfied with nothing else.” Like Socrates, Olsen said he had “learned how significant was the life of the mind in achieving happiness.”

    Olsen is survived by his wife, Josephine; his daughter, Margaret; his sons, James and John; and grandchildren, Marissa and Lindsey, Jason and Jamie.