Saturday, May 10, 2014
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JEAN OLSON

Jean Olson died peacefully at her home in Key West on May 1, 2014.

Born Wilma Jean Wolfe on June 5, 1926 in West Union, Iowa, she was the elder of two daughters of Ruby and Clint Wolfe. Following her parents' separation, Jean and sister Inez were raised simply, sternly, and lovingly by their mother, sharing a small apartment over a store on the town square. After graduating from West Union High, Jean found employment at Northwestern Bell Telephone, rising quickly to the position of operator supervisor, the highest rank attainable by a woman. It was there that she met her future husband, management trainee James Olson. They married in 1955, and as the Company would not employ both members of a married couple, Jean resigned her position to start a family and begin the duties of executive wife. Years later at a conference sponsored by the National Organization of Women (N.O.W.), host Gloria Steinem asked Jim what woman in history he most admired. His response was "my wife, because she gave up her career to be married to me. And she outranked me at the time."

In the course of their rise through the corporation--Jim was named Chairman of AT&T in 1986--Jean accompanied her husband to destinations around the world, meeting with business leaders, heads of state, and international celebrities. She had many stories of her travels, often recounted with her trademark touch of irreverence, such as the conversation with Jacqueline Onassis in the ladies lounge of the Waldorf-Astoria that began with Jackie furtively bumming a cigarette.

From her early days as girl singer on Iowa radio with the local big bands, Jean harbored a special affection for popular music and the American Songbook. In Key West, she was a generous supporter of the performing arts, including the Waterfront Playhouse and Tennessee Williams Theatre. Until declining health intervened, she delighted in hosting her annual "Sing for your Supper" buffet, inviting Key West's professional and amateur musicians to share a song and good times. Other local causes that were important to her included the Truman Little White House, the Red Cross, and the Trophia Butterfly Foundation.

Jean is survived by her son, local resident Jimmy, and daughter Julie; additionally, she leaves her sister, Inez, and four grandchildren. The family plan to host a memorial party for her in the fall, and ask those wishing to remember her to donate to the Emily Boyd Lowe Foundation, supporting the cultivation of new generations of musical talent in Key West.