The Flash Olson Story

A Swedish-American with a Dream

 

Clarence William Olson was born on April 4, 1929 in top floor of an old, broken down home in Lakewood, New York. His parents were William Olson and Signe Carlson Olson and were part of a Swedish community of people who spoke their native language of Swedish in the home. Clarence could understand Swedish, but never read or wrote it and English was very difficult for him in his youth.

Clarence’s father was a factory worker who liked to play piano at a local bar in the evenings. William Olson played totally by ear, meaning he could not read music but picked up the latest popular tunes by listening and could then immediately play them back at the piano. Clarence’s mother, Signe, was a woman who thought she was sick all the time, but really wasn’t. Clarence had two younger siblings who catered to their mother’s every wish and demand. Clarence discovered at an early age that he loved sports and decided he could stay away from home much of the day to learn, play and be all he could be. He met a group of guys who liked him a lot and one day the oldest boy looked at him and said, “Clarence! Who would name their son Clarence! We have got to get rid of that. Let’s call you, Flash!” A new person was born.

Flash’s schoolwork was floundering. No one at home could help him because they couldn’t speak English well enough and were too busy doing what they had to do to survive. At the end of third grade, Flash was retained because he couldn’t read or write well and he sometimes displayed a negative, cocky attitude. His next year in school proved to be wonderful as he saw himself really tackle his studies and outgrow his bad attitude. Flash was actually very grateful to have been caught at that time and held back at a young age and after that little set back never looked back.

Flash grew in sports and was particularly good at basketball and track and field events. He also loved to sail small vessels on Chautauqua Lake and was asked often to sail in the regattas. He and his partner usually placed first or second in the races. Many of the other sailors were wealthy and belonged to The Yacht Club, an exclusive club down the street from Flash’s home. People had to pay dues and belong to the club to socialize there. Because Flash was poor, he could never go into The Yacht Club after the sailboat races. The members would meet at the club and Flash walked home feeling neglected and unwanted. Many people at this time didn’t just discriminate against poor people. They also mocked the Swedish-Americans by saying they were “dumb Swedes” and could never amount to anything really important. Flash was a victim of prejudice and it bothered him to his death.

Flash had a wonderful male teacher mentor named Cloyce Swearingen who helped Flash gain confidence through genuine support and encouragement. Flash never expected to be more in his vocational life than a factory worker like his dad, yet deep inside he had a real determination to become a physical education teacher and coach. He never dared discuss this dream with his family because they didn’t understand. Mr. Swearingen did understand and helped Flash prepare for the next journey in his life.

When Flash graduated from high school the United States found itself at war with and in North Korea. Flash enlisted in the Army and became a paratrooper. He jumped 19 times from an old fashioned airplane. Although he was never asked to serve his country in Korea, he worked very hard here in the States to be ready if he were ever needed for battle.

Flash met his future wife, Nancy Cass, and they married while he was still in the military. After two years of service, Flash left the military and took the funding of money called the G.I. Bill to help him pursue his real dream: to be a physical education teacher and coach. With his wife’s support and both of them working hard, Flash fulfilled his dream in a rather strange way.

In his last year of college he needed to student teach. Mr. Swearingen set him up to be the physical education teacher at his old elementary school and help with several sports at the high school. Flash was there one school year and during that whole time, no one came from his college to observe him. Mr. Swearingen mentored him along the way. At the end of the school year, Flash passed his student teaching with flying colors and received a paycheck for the entire school year of $2500.00. He was hired on as the official physical education teacher of the elementary schools and stated a wrestling team. Later he was promoted to the high school and became the head football coach and continued to coach wrestling. To this day, Coach Olson holds a record of 40 wins – 0 losses for the varsity wrestling team over a four-year span. More importantly, his impact on young people, his care for them, his toughness on them, his dream for them to be all they can be was to make Flash Olson a local hero in his small town.

Clarence “Flash” Olson died on July 27, 1998 of complications with Alzheimer’s. 800 people attended his Memorial Tribute and every one of those people and countless more who could not make the celebration, knew the wonderful teacher and were changed in some way because of him.


The additional financial assistance of the community is critical to the success of the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame. We gratefully acknowledge these individuals and organizations for their generous support.

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