Olga O’Donnell working on one of her many quilts.

After returning home from a recent Amtrak trip to California, I called my dear cousin Olga, and we enjoyed a nice conversation. I wanted to know how she was feeling, and I also wanted to tell her what a fine, adopted son she has raised, my nephew Billy O’Donnell. He is always ready to help me out, oftentimes on very short notice. 

I’m glad I called Olga that day. Sadly, it was the last time I would speak to her. She peacefully passed in her sleep that very night. She would have celebrated her 97th birthday on Jan. 11. Olga lived a remarkable life, which I profiled in the second column piece I wrote for this newspaper. I have borrowed parts of that essay for this tribute. 

Olga had a wide-ranging mind, capable of handling sundry situations and mastering many challenging tasks. I only beat her once in Scrabble, but she was quick to remind me, “I helped you a lot on that one.” Going back in years, she graduated in the top three of her Ashby High School Class of 1941, and enrolled at Moorhead State Teachers College. Having no car, she and her friend Margaret Holmen hitchhiked home on weekends, even in the dead of winter. Olga’s mother had a rule about hitching a ride. “Never get in a car that has more than one man.”

After a year of teacher training, she took a job in a one-room country school at Aastad Township District 64, south of Fergus Falls. In the summer of 1942, Olga made what Joseph Campbell would call an early “Hero’s Journey,” a young person striking out in the world as a rite of passage. She and Margaret headed out to Seattle to work for the Boeing Company, building B-17 bombers for World War II. Yes, Olga became a “Rosie the Riveter.”

After work one evening, Olga and Margaret were enjoying a treat in an ice cream parlor, when in walked a handsome sailor, Bill O’Donnell. Thus began another chapter in Olga’s life. They talked, dated, and exchanged letters after Bill’s ship went back to sea. Summer passed and Olga had to return to Minnesota, because she had signed a two-year teaching contract. 

The next summer, Margaret and Olga took a train to San Francisco and were hired to do office work. She told me she could see Alcatraz prison from her office window. When Bill’s ship came in to Long Beach Harbor, the girls went down to meet him. Olga was ready to get married.

On their wedding day, Bill hailed a taxi to take the three of them to the chapel. Margaret would be Olga’s maid of honor, but Bill didn’t have a best man. However, luck was with them. When they got in the cab, there was another rider, a total stranger, a sailor named Raymond Smith. So, Bill asked the young man if he would “stand up for him” at his wedding. The young man agreed, but he wanted to go home first to bring back his girlfriend. When the wedding ceremony began, the pews were empty, except for two people who sat in the front row, Raymond Smith’s girlfriend and the taxi driver. 

We’ll jump ahead several years. From 1950 through 2003, Olga and Bill owned the Norway Beach Resort on Stalker Lake. Olga worked at the bank in Dalton for many years, and most of her spare time was devoted to making quilts for Lutheran World Relief. How many? Somewhere over 1,500. Her work has helped warm needy people all over the world from India to Nicaragua–poverty victims, victims of house fires, hurricanes, and wars. Janice Risbrudt has known Olga all of her life and once told me, “Olga was an inspiration, a cherished example of kindness and nurturing. She was a mentor to all our young women.” 

When I first wrote about Olga, I asked her what advice she would give to youngsters. She was direct in her answer. “Be truthful, obey the laws, and be willing to serve people in need.” Well said, dear cousin. You have been a guiding light to me and many others. 

Olga Benhartus O’Donnell (January 11, 1923–December 11, 2019).  May you rest in peace.


Note: Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 21 at the Bethel Lutheran Church, 34258 140th Street, Rural Battle Lake, MN. 56515. 


Ozzie Tollefson lives near Phelps Mill and is the author of “Mr. Teacher.”

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