Richard Ragnar Olson, retired art teacher, skilled musician, talented painter and sculptor, whose warm wit and big heart made him a terrific father, husband, and friend, died on May 20, 2021, in Burlington, N.C., not far from Saxapahaw, N.C., where he made his home since 2012 with Emily Olson, his wife of 53 years. He had just turned 80 on May 9.
Richard taught art for many years at Rockville High School in Rockville, Conn., while creating his own abstract impressionist painting and sculpture.
Music was always a great passion for Richard, and he was still playing guitar and singing until the final week of his life.
As a talented singer and guitar player as well as a stride piano, blues harmonica, mandolin and banjo player, he played in bluegrass bands and jam sessions in Illinois, Connecticut, and North Carolina for more than 50 years. In his 20s, he befriended and played informally with renowned blues musicians Paul Butterfield and Elvin Bishop. Throughout his life he was known as a great singer, and a prolific author of parody country songs, often with a cutting political edge, far to the left of center. He heard Martin Luther King speak in the 60s and was one of the demonstrators at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.
Born in Orange, N.J., in 1941, Richard moved shortly afterward to Little Silver, N.J., but spent most of his childhood in Saco, Maine, before moving to Chicago with his family in high school.
After graduating from the University of Chicago High School, Richard briefly attended the Colorado School of Mines after a high school guidance counselor “told me I liked rocks,” he would joke years later. While attending, he was a member of the football team as a center and offensive lineman.
One day after returning to Chicago from Colorado, Richard’s car broke down. As Richard would tell it, the nearest phone was the U.S. Marines recruitment office. He could use the phone, they told him, so long as he enlisted, and so, he spent six years in in the Marines, two of them in the Reserves, with his primary responsibility being that of a weather observer stationed in Cherry Point, N.C.
After leaving the Marines, Richard enrolled at the University of Illinois in Champaign Urbana, majoring in history.
His time at the University of Illinois was also brief. Richard returned to Chicago, where he worked at various jobs, including as a reporter for the Associated Press.
In 1967 he met Emily (neé Bernstein) through a mutual friend. Their 53-year marriage began a year later.
Richard and Emily moved to Connecticut where he attended the University of Connecticut as an art major, graduating in 1973. He then received a Master of Fine Arts from the Hartford Art School at the University of Hartford in 1976.
Before nearly 20 years at Rockville High School in Rockville, Conn., Richard’s first job as an art teacher was at the Grace S. Webb School at Hartford’s Institute of Living. Later he taught art at the E.O. Smith High School in Storrs, Conn., as well as Suffield High School.
At Rockville he taught a variety of our topics including photography, video production, and computer video art.
In addition to his wife, Emily, at home in Saxapahaw, he is survived by a daughter, Elizabeth (John) Padgett of Conover, N.C.; a son, Benjamin Olson, of Los Angeles, Calif.; grandchildren Preston Padgett and Samantha Padgett, also of Conover; a sister, Constance Olson of Fairfield, Iowa; and step-siblings John Dudley and Susan Strickland, both of Maine.
A private memorial service is planned.
Donations may be made to Music Maker Relief Foundation, Hillsborough, N.C. (www.musicmaker.org)
Arrangements entrusted to Piedmont Cremation & Funeral Service of Graham, NC.