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Last Manatee High chorus for ‘Papa Olson’

BRADENTON — The lyrics were from a poem by a queen awaiting her doom.

Yet Manatee High School’s women’s chorale sang them so beautifully it would make angels weep.

“When thou hast none to cheer thee, think on me.

“When no fond heart is near thee, think on me.

“When lonely sighing o’er pleasure flying,

“When hope is dying,

“Think on me.”

The words were written by Mary, Queen of Scots, who was imprisoned and beheaded by the English in 1587.

A hush filled Room 851 in the E. James Forssell Music Building when the girls were done.

It even gave Gareth Olson pause.

“There are times I step back and just listen,” said MHS’s beloved director of vocal activities. “It’s very gratifying.”

Especially now.

After 32 years at MHS, Olson is retiring.

The school’s final concert under his stewardship is 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Davis Auditorium.

Olson seemed at peace with that finality.

“I’m looking forward to the last one, but it’s something I’m going to miss. Absolutely,” said the 64-year-old. “Not just the beauty of the music, but the kids.

“A lot of them are doing things they had no idea they had in them to do, and to see them begin to realize their potential is exciting. I hope I’ve been an inspiration to them. I know they have been for me.”

Whether freshmen or seniors, the students revere the teacher they affectionately refer to as “Papa Olson.”

“He helps you go places you never thought you could go,” said Elizabeth Pratt, a freshman alto. “It makes me sad I only got one year with him.”

Sophomore second soprano Shea Goodman said she feels lucky. She is the last of three sisters to be taught by Olson.

“I was so nervous being in chorus my first year, but they reassured me Mr. Olson was very nice and a really good teacher,” Goodman said. “He’s a great person, very understanding. Very encouraging.”

Senior Kourtney VanFossen had a different take.

“He’s not just a music teacher,” the second soprano said. “He connects with us one on one. We can talk to him about our personal life, family, whatever you’re going through.”

Olson is an advocate for his students, all right.

“Kids sell themselves short,” he said. “They’ve got more ability than they think, and someone’s got to show them the possibilities. It’s every teacher’s goal.”

That calling dawned on Olson at a young age.

Born in pastoral Thief River Falls, Minn., he grew up on a 100-acre farm in Stanchfield, north of Minneapolis.

“We were dirt poor,” Olson said. “The farm wasn’t enough to sustain us. Just put eggs and milk on the table.”

So his father worked in a country store where the owner’s wife, the church organist and pianist, made him an offer.

“She told my dad, get a piano and I’ll teach your son and daughter to play — for free. That’s what got me going at 10.

“I eventually got involved with band and chorus my sophomore year and I liked it. I determined I wanted to teach vocal music.”

A fortuitous career choice, the thousands of MHS students Olson has taught would agree.

Sherri Lasater, a 1979 MHS grad and ensemble member, was one.

“Mr. Olson was quite something,” said the 47-year-old mother of three. “His music style was different than what we were used to, more innovative. It was nice to have somebody like that.”

Her daughter Evelyn thinks so, too.

“It’s cool to think I’m singing songs he taught her,” said the sophomore first soprano. “He impresses on you to communicate with the audience, make a connection instead of just going up there and singing words and notes.

“Tuesday night will be memorable for me.”

Which is how Olson wants it for all his students.

“We’re dealing with something beautiful — music, the glue that keeps us together,” he said. “It’s the journey, not the end result, being part of the learning process. I love that.”

“I’ve achieved what I hoped to and enjoyed every bit of it.”

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 745-7055, or write him at Bradenton Herald, P.O. Box 921, Bradenton, Fla. 34206 or e-mail him at Please include a phone number for verification.