About the same time I started reporting on Idaho politics back in the seventies, in Pocatello, the Idaho Republican Party chose a new chairman, an attorney from nearby Idaho Falls named Dennis Olsen.
He was tough-minded (smooth diplomacy was not his strongest suit), a fine organizer and a careful watcher of the party’s money – all of which he wanted spent on the campaigns, not left over for anything other than electing Republicans. He was a Reagan Republican when Ronald Reagan was president, and he was there at Idaho Falls when candidate Reagan made his 1980 Idaho appearance.
Dennis Olson died in March 1985, shoveling snow at his house. He had prepared a succession plan for the party organization – a fellow Idaho Falls attorney named Blake Hall would take over – but the ripple effects of his work started closer to home: The deep and long-lasting civic engagement of his wife, Sheila.
Sheila Olsen, who recently died at 79 in Idaho Falls, was at least as important a Republican leader as her husband had been. She too would happily have called herself a Reagan Republican. But she was a different kind of leader, with a different sort of legacy.
She was active in the Idaho Republican Party, less as an office holder and more as a lodestar; the kind of person others looked to for good counsel and guidance. For candidates, her support was eagerly sought; her perspective carried weight. She was an electoral college elector, a post which reflected less personal work or decision-making on her part (or that of any other electors), but rather the esteem she held across the Republican Party. A lot of Democrats and independents held her in high regard too.
She was as active as you could be in the realm of civic pushups. Far from being a partisan obsessive, Sheila Olsen was active in the community in a wide range of roles. She served on the Idaho Human Rights Commission for many years, on the Governor’s Work Force Development Council, the state reapportionment commission, the state Employment Security Advisory Council, and other organizations, including a long list at Idaho Falls, as well. She was highly active in her church too.
What the many people who knew her also knew was something else that might have sidelined many others: For about half a century, she had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which bore down on her as the years went on. But as one of her children said, “She was a glass-half-full girl. It didn’t matter how hard it was for her to get places or do things — she just still did them without complaining.”
There were various good reasons she was looked up to, but that last point highlights one of the most important: She was a supporter, not a denigrator, a backer, not a demolition activist. She would provide endorsements where she thought them merited, but if you were looking for bombs to throw, you’d need to look somewhere else.
Sheila Olsen came into Idaho politics in a day when partisan issues were clear enough, and loyalties were evident, but when the demonizing that has become so commonplace today had not yet taken hold. It didn’t take hold of her.
Her example would be worth some reflection for us now.