You could always spot Irving Olson in the audience at a Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra concert.
He was the little man in the front row of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, his white hair neatly parted on the side.
“He would always sit in the front row and when he would be recognized he would stand up and wave his hands,” said SASO violinist Dee Schroer, who multitasks as the orchestra’s governing board president.
The orchestra made a point at each concert of recognizing Olson and fellow angel donors — patrons whose financial support exceeded $20,000 a year. Olson, quite the showman, would leap to his feet and “put his fists in the air like ‘I’m the champion’ kind of thing,” recalled SASO violist Tim Secomb this week after Olson died Oct. 1 at home in Oro Valley. He was 102.
“He was enjoying himself. He was like a little kid in a way,” said Secomb, who also serves as the orchestra’s personnel director.
“He loved an audience,” added his daughter, Carolyn Stelman, who lives in Oro Valley.
Olson had been a devoted fan and patron of SASO since moving to the upscale retirement community of Splendido in Oro Valley 10 years ago. Stelman said her father thought the orchestra was “fabulous. The mere fact that it was all volunteer was remarkable to him.”
Olson and his wife, Ruth, moved to Tucson from Akron, Ohio, nearly 20 years ago. The couple was among the first residents of Splendido when it opened, Stelman said.
Ruth Olson died in 2011.
Irving Olson was born on Nov. 26, 1913, in Connecticut. He moved to Ohio when he was 6 and grew up in Akron, one of five children of immigrant parents. Stelman said her father and his siblings all took music lessons — Olson played violin — when they were young. His mother thought that the kids could form a band and eventually support their parents in their old age, Stelman said.
“One day when my grandmother told him, ‘Irving, go practice your violin,’ he said, ‘I can’t, ma.’ She said, ‘Irving, don’t talk to me like that. Go practice your violin.’ He said, ‘I can’t ma.’ And she asked him why, and he said, ‘I sold the violin’, ” Stelman said.
Olson, who had started a commercial print shop when he was 12, used the proceeds from the violin to buy parts to repair radios, a business he would eventually grow into a mail-order and 100-store national company, Olson Electronics. Olson ran the company until he retired at age 50.
He and his wife spent the next several decades traveling widely to pursue another of his loves: photography.
Olson’s photographs, from simple life-day scenes in his retirement home in Arizona, to slices of life from around the globe, were displayed in museums and galleries. He also was widely known for developing “water-drop photographs,” many of which he shared almost daily with 2,000 followers of his Facebook page.
Although he ditched the violin when he was a teen, Olson remained a loyal music fan, serving as an angel donor to his hometown Akron Symphony Orchestra and then to SASO. He was a guest conductor for both orchestras, an honor won after successfully outbidding other patrons in fundraising auctions.
At a 2008 SASO concert, Olson stood at the podium with the score of Strauss’s Radetzky March in front of him. Every once in a while as the musicians played, he would flip a page, glance down and then back at the orchestra waving his baton presumably in time to the music.
“He would turn the pages of the score very conspicuously, as if he was reading it,” Secomb said. “Obviously he didn’t know where we were, but he would turn the pages. That was a scream.”
Stelman said whenever her father guest-conducted, he would place the score upside down on the podium since he wasn’t really reading the music .
In addition to his daughter, Olson is survived by his son, Stephen of San Francisco; four grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his sister, Pauline, and brothers Sidney, Albert and Philip.
Private services will be held in Oro Valley.
SASO will honor Olson at its 2016-17 season-opening concerts this weekend with a performance of Mexican composer Arturo Márquez’s spirited Danzon No. 2.
“Irving was an upbeat kind of guy. You don’t want to play something sad in memory of his life,” said Schroer, who said she always enjoyed listening to Olson’s stories about his world travels and his photography. “He was an upbeat, happy person.”
“He was such a wonderful man,” said SASO conductor Linus Lerner, who saw Olson last spring when he donated money for Lerner’s inaugural Festival de Opera San Luis in Mexico. Olson had sponsored SASO over the past few summers to travel to Mexico for opera festivals.
“He told me he didn’t much like opera, but he liked me,” Lerner said. “For me he was an inspiration.”