Paul Gilbert Olsen — a remarkable son of Butte, America — passed on from this world on Feb. 17, 2017. His family now celebrates the life of a truly exceptional man. Paul was born on Sept. 25, 1925, the youngest child of Albert Olsen and Anna Vennes Olsen, both Norwegian immigrants who met and married in Butte.
The Olsen family lived on the 700 block of Quartz Street in Butte. Paul grew up a scrapper in a household of big, tough men. His father was rope gang foreman on the Butte Hill. The three Olsen brothers — Ralph, Arnold, and Paul — worked early in their lives as newsboys. Paul started selling newspapers at age 7. The brothers “held” the corner of Broadway and Main in front of the Texaco Petroleum building for 14 years, passing it down from one brother to the next.
Paul had a passion for working with draft horse teams. At the age of 6, he watched his father and the rope gang freight the Metals Bank vault up the hill from the railroad tracks using draft teams, and he loved telling how he watched in awe as the men and the horses worked. In 1936, at the age 10, Paul began working summers for Louis and Laura Dahl at the Cottonwood Ranch in Harlowton, where he learned to farm with draft horses, delivered supplies to sheepherders and built reservoirs. He continued working summers for the Dahls until 1943, but his love of working draft horse teams continued throughout his life.
Paul had his own paper route at 16 and also worked in his brother Ralph’s gas station. He graduated from Butte High School in 1943, and joined the Navy in late August of that year at the age of 17. He did his basic training in Farragut, Idaho, and then served at an ammo depot in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Paul was a hard worker, and his commanding officer recommended him for the torpedoman school in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii. He served out the remainder of World War II as a submarine torpedoman in the Pacific.
Paul attended the University of Montana in Missoula on the GI Bill beginning in 1947, and it was there he met his sweetheart Jacqueline “Jackie” Williams at a freshmen mixer dance. The two were married in Billings in 1948. Paul began to split time between his education and driving truck in the Butte mines in that same year. He graduated from UM’s law school in early 1952, and the couple moved their young family to Helena that year, where Paul worked for the Veterans’ Compensation Division.
In 1953, Billings attorney Willis Jones asked Paul to partner with him, and the two formed the Jones & Olsen law firm. They added Gerry Christensen in 1961, and the Jones, Olsen, & Christensen partnership remained a fixture in Billings through the end of the century. Paul Olsen’s law practice was dedicated to the needs of the working class and the poor.
In the 1960s, Paul Olsen gained admission to the bar of the Supreme Court of the United States on the recommendation of Senator Lee Metcalf. For a time, he was the only Montana attorney able to argue cases before the Supreme Court. He won all five cases he argued there, including a decision that granted adoption rights to grandparents.
Paul and Jackie raised four children together: Lona (1950), Peter (1952), Rebekah (1957) and Polly (1959). He is remembered as a kind, joyful and happy father. He could be hard on his children when they disappointed him, but he was always quick to forgive. Life around Paul Olsen was often an ongoing civics lesson. He taught his children that they had rights, and he loved to challenge their thinking with heated and often playful banter. He taught his children about Jesus and how to pray. Everyone was welcome at his table, and he treated everyone as an honored guest. Paul put his family above all other interests, activities and pursuits. He was the type of man that his son wanted to be, and he was the type of man that his daughters looked for in a husband. He was a lover of the Good Lord, his family, good horses, good dogs and fun.
Paul owned land near 88th Street outside of Billings, where he and Jackie eventually built a home. There, he enjoyed driving his draft horse team, Rosie and Josie. He was always busy with a welding or woodworking project in his shop. He enjoyed building his hay wagon and his sleigh there with his son Pete and his son-in-law Rod. Papa’s place was an open landscape for adventure. He kept a loaded BB gun propped by the back door for whichever grandkid that came to visit that day, and he seemed to know that time spent running through grass and sage kept kids out of trouble. He gave frequent lessons in shooting, riding and driving. He was known for saying goodbye with a game he called “last tags,” and he’d tell you to ride your brakes to the bottom of the hill. When you returned, he would greet you with a “Hey Tiger” or an Old West quick-draw contest with his finger. He played the loser of a quick-draw contest better than any Hollywood actor ever tried.
His grandchildren called him “Papa Washcloth” because of his impeccably tidy habits. After a meal or a snack, he would be waiting to snag every grandkid, one at a time, with one of his big hands on the back of the head and wipe their entire face with a hot, soapy washcloth in the other hand. He washed the dishes after every meal, and he would playfully howl in pain when his grandkids would sneak up behind him and snap his flashy rainbow suspenders on his back. His arrival home was announced by his profound whistling and yodeling abilities, the air pushed out from the strong lungs inside his barrel chest. He encouraged his grandchildren to always do their best, and he always had a funny, rough-and-tumble story from his childhood in Butte to emphasize why. He kept lengths of rope on the coffee table to teach his grandchildren the knots that his father and the Navy taught him. He made simple errands seem like adventurous and special outings that he had waited for until you arrived, and he made you feel like you were his favorite. He could make a trip to the mailbox feel like the world.
Paul and Jackie were married for 68 years. They loved to travel and were known to drive for dinner in Butte at a moment’s notice. They were lifetime members of the Billings Saddle Club and were founding members of the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Billings. Paul served as president of the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, president of the Yellowstone Democrats Club, president of Valley Federal Credit Union, and twice as Billings Saddle Club president. Paul helped found St. John’s Lutheran Home in Billings and served as its counsel. He was particularly proud of his work as counsel for the Yellowstone Valley Electric Cooperative and the St. Labre Indian Mission. Paul was appointed to the Housing Authority Board for Retired Persons, the Cemetery Commission & Planning Board, and was a board member for St. Vincent Hospital’s Senior Services. Governor Thomas Judge appointed Paul to the Montana Banking Commission. Paul also took part in the first Montana Honor Flight, visiting the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. with other Montana veterans.
Paul was a member of the Butte Clerks’ Union; the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers; the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades; and the Teamsters Union. He was also a member of the Montana Trial Lawyers Association, the Montana Bar Association, and the American Bar Association.
Paul G. Olsen was a giant of a man — in his size, in his spirit, and in his contributions to the communities in which he worked. He leaves us all wondering how we deserved him. He was a world-class gentleman.
Paul was preceded in death by his wife Jackie on Jan. 9 of this year; by his brothers Orville, Ralph and Arnold; by his sister, Agnes Webb; and by best friends Melvin Rayfish and Willis Jones. He is survived by his daughters, Lona (Wayne) Olsen, Rebekah (Rod) Propp and Polly (Troy) Namen; and son Peter (Linda) Olsen; as well as 11 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren. He is also survived by best friend Gerry Christensen.
In lieu of flowers, memorials can be made to the Shriners Children’s Hospital.
Burial will take place at 1 p.m. Friday, Feb. 24, at the Yellowstone National Cemetery in Laurel. A memorial service will be at 1 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 25, at Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, 1108 N. 24th St. West in Billings.
Michelotti-Sawyers Mortuary is assisting with arrangements. Condolences may be made online at www.michelottisawyers.com.