Gary Olsen Retires, June 5, 2001

Gary Olsen, with a painting by Vivian Olsen

reprinted by permission from El Defensor Chieftain

Drawn by green chile and an intriguing student body, history professor Gary Olsen came to New Mexico Tech in 1970, and is only now leaving for a new adventure.

On his first trip to Tech, in 1970, Olsen began his discovery of one of his favorite foods: green chile. "One of the things that impressed me most," Olsen said, "was being invited to dinner at Tech history professor Paige Christiansen's home."

"On top of the steak was this green stuff. I had no idea what it was," he said. Upon tasting it, Olsen said, "I thought it was really wonderful. At that moment, I thought I really want to come work here."

Three months later, Olsen began his first day of class at Tech, a school quite different from his own educational experiences. Olsen, a native of Washington, received his bachelor of arts in history from Washington State University. He then went on to the University of Arizona for his master's degree and then into a doctoral program at the University of Oregon. However, one year later, Olsen returned to Arizona to finish his Ph.D.

Olsen said, "When I first came here, I really felt like a stranger in a very strange land, coming from a liberal arts background and having attended large public universities."

But, he said it did not take long for him to adjust. "I tremendously enjoyed the small classes and getting to know people. I discovered very quickly I liked the students ... they were ... feisty."

"In those days," Olsen said, "Tech ... was a much more tightly knit community. We used to have great parties in the old Driscoll Hall. We all packed in." But those parties at Tech are no more, partly thanks to Olsen himself, which he readily admits.

In 1975, a new administration took over campus, and two years later, Olsen became dean of students. The new administration, he said, had concerns about the legal ramifications of some activities at Tech, particularly the drinking and purchase of beer with university fees. As dean, he immediately discontinued the use of university fees for beer purchases.In the 1970s, there were two particularly wild weekends each year, 49ers, which still exists today, and the St. Patrick's Day celebration, which does not.

"There was benevolent anarchy that pervaded campus on those two weekends every year," Olsen said. "The St. Pat's that I knew always involved naked people running around campus, painted green." Olsen said, as the years wore on, students would try to outdo the St. Pat's celebration from the year before.

"One year," he said, "I got my hands tied behind my back and thrown into the duckpond. I was not a very happy dean. Then, there were rumors that animal sacrifices were taking place during St. Pat's." Shortly thereafter, St. Pat's was closed down. "It was a decision on the part of the faculty that St. Pat's had gotten out of hand," he said.

In 1985, Olsen gave up his spot as dean but was drawn back to the position in 1991 because of the students. "I kind of missed interacting with the students," Olsen said. As he looks towards retirement, he said he will miss all of Tech the students, staff, faculty, grounds and the overall feel of campus. "My overall feeling about Tech is extremely positive. I love the place." Olsen said, "It's going to be very hard to leave."

Olsen and his wife, artist Vivian Olsen, are moving to Oregon where he can fish and golf, she can paint and they can both hike all over the area. Gary will teach summer school and then head off on his new adventure. He said, "Vivian and I are leaving not because we want to leave here but because we're drawn to another really neat place. We're really going to miss Tech."