Longtime Lake Cowichan resident Nels Olson, sometimes called Mr. Lake Cowichan, and known for his big smile and happy demeanour, and his never-ending willingness to help out, died Oct. 9. He was 94.
He had been known in recent years as a hockey great-grandparent, traveling the arena circuit and cheering on the youngsters, becoming known to all the young hockey players as “Papa Nels”.
He always believed in volunteering, driving cancer patients to Victoria for treatment, delivering Meals on Wheels, rescuing stranded boaters on the lake, and cleaning up Lake Cowichan’s streets by constantly picking up garbage.
But for folks who’ve lived at the Lake for a long time, there’s a lot more to remember about Olson and a huge crowd turned out Sunday afternoon, Oct. 28 to celebrate his life and support his family.
Olson was born at Charter Siding just a short time after his mother, Gulle, arrived from Sweden following a gruelling journey. She and her eldest son Oke had travelled to Vancouver Island to join her husband, Olaf.
Young Nels Olson grew up beside the Cowichan River, with his brothers Oke and George, before leaving to join the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War.
Then, he returned to Lake Cowichan and married his childhood sweetheart June Eckert, who died in 2006. The couple had four children: Colleen, Terry, Jody, and Becky, and subsequently Nels enjoyed spending time with his grandkids and great-grandkids.
Always energetic, Olson loved the years he worked as a faller in the forest industry, where he was known for his amazing work ethic. He was frequently asked to train new fallers.
But he always found time and energy to support his community, especially the Scandinavian Club, which was an important organization in Lake Cowichan in the 1950s and 1960s. He served as president many times. He also sang and played the piano in the orchestra and entertained at countless dances as well as finding time for baseball, bowling, and curling.
As well, from 1961 to 1974, the Olsons were co-owners of the Castaways Resort on North Shore Road. From those days, family members say they remember the fun of singing with all the campers by the bonfire while Olson played the ukulele.
During the celebration at Centennial Hall Sunday, his last surviving brother, George, talked about their times together, to many chuckles from the audience. Younger members of the family –Katelyn and Jocelyn Bennett, Hailey Friday and Gillian Walters, and Nicole Ehrstein – gave a eulogy and read a poem written for Olson, and Allan Lundgren spoke briefly about his great friend’s work for the IWA and the Scandinavian Club. The afternoon ended with a slideshow presenting pictures from his long life in Lake Cowichan.
Long-time family friend Ross Forrest, who acted as emcee during the event, emotionally told the audience that he thought Olson’s last gift to the community was the fine family he had left behind him.
Finally everyone adjourned downstairs to enjoy coffee and time to talk about the exuberant man whose life had touched them all.
Comments from the family’s Facebook pages following Olson’s death show that Mr. Lake Cowichan was well-loved and respected in his community.
The Lake Cowichan Minor Hockey Association posted a picture of him in his Lakers jacket, holding a special “Papa Nels” award, and said, “our sincerest condolences to the Olson family. You are all in our thoughts during this difficult time. Nels will be remembered as a kind, gentle soul and proud fan that enjoyed every minute of his time spent at the arena watching all of his grandchildren playing. He will be missed dearly.”
Darlene Mancell said, “Such a joyful man, that smile says it all. You couldn’t help but feel good when he was around. A true light!”
Steven and Tracy Johnson said, “he will be missed so much.”