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MIHS’ Craig Olson leaving for Florida
At the moment this reporter arrived to interview Mercer Island High School Associate Principal Craig Olson, a school lockdown drill began. With few words, the staff set out to take their positions, grabbing walkie-talkies and keys. An unsuspecting parent was corralled and pulled inside the main office. No one could enter or leave the building. Doors and corridors within the building were locked, and blinds and windows were closed. As the drill ended smoothly, staff made their way back to the main office and surrounded Olson, peppering him with questions.
Olson a 19-year veteran at the school, knows the particulars. Through it all, the coach, teacher and administrator is cool and calm — there is a smile on his face. He knows the where and the why. After all, he joined the high school staff just as the high school was being transformed from a low-slung, 1950s mash-up into a more modern school in the mid-1990s. He knows the nooks and crannies, the halls and closets, the history, the stories.
But by week’s end, Olson will be gone. He is leaving the district and will take early retirement. He is moving to Florida to take in the sun, golf and start a new job.
When Olson joined the district in 1994, the district was in the process of rebuilding its schools.
Olson had not interviewed at the high school itself, he said, but at the district offices with then-superintendent, Dick Geiger. He had not seen where he would work until his first day.
“I was shocked when I first came in to the school,” he remembered. “The condition of the building was deplorable. At least the toilets worked, but we ran out of trash cans as they were being used to catch the drips of water from the ceiling. The high school then was pieced together ‘blending’ some traditional straight hallways with classrooms opening up to them,” he explained, “with another part built with a ‘California design’ where the classrooms opened up to the outside.”
Finally there was the ‘mushroom’ (the much-maligned giant canopy-like structure over the old student cafeteria) that represented a then ‘modern approach to design,’ he added.
But it turned out well, he said of the massive remodel. It was worth the struggle.
A 1972 graduate of Everett High School, Olson’s mother was a teacher. After high school, Olson attended Everett Community University for a time then went on to Washington State University. In between studies, he spent a spring and fall coaching at WSU when Jackie Sherrill was the head coach. Sherill assigned Olson to help out then-assistant coach, Mike Price who then coached running backs. Price later became the Cougars head coach.
But Olson fell ill and left the school after he was diagnosed with mononucleosis. He later finished his education degree through Central Washington University in 1979.
Before coming to Mercer Island in 1994, Olson taught business education and marketing for 13 years and was a head football coach for five seasons. He spent 8 years at Mountlake Terrace High School.
He was hired as an associate principal, athletic director and activities coordinator. He said he was never tempted to become the (head) principal as he would have had to have given up the athletic director position. He said he likes the combination of education and athletics.
“Athletics is a natural extension of education,” he said. “Over the years, no matter what, I have never forgotten that I am a teacher.”
He served on the board of the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association, the body that sets the standards and rules for state high school athletics, for 14 years on the Executive Board, and a year as the board president.
As athletic director, he has been through some exciting times, he said, ticking off the names of wildly successful Islander coaches: Ed Pepple, Nile Clarke, Dick Nicholls, Paul Jackson, Frank Ceteznik and Geoff Mills. He has been pleased to be a part of the implementation of Title IX, the federal law that requires equal opportunities in sports for girls.
“Adding girls athletics has been good for everyone,” he said.
But being the athletic director was just part of his job.
His old boss, former Mercer Island High School Principal, John Harrison, who is now an administrator at Bellevue School District, said Olson’s job changed dramatically over time.
“As the years went by, there was more to do and fewer people,” said Harrison. “What we expected assistant principals to do, was a lot.”
He also noted that Olson did more than just enforce rules and oversee sports programs.
“Craig went to the ends of the earth to give kids a chance to put on a Mercer Island High School uniform,” he said. “He was innovative and brought programs such as lacrosse under the athletic umbrella at school.”
In 2005, Olson was key in paving the way for a girl, then freshman Jean Laschever, to wrestle with the boys team. Since that time, other girls have followed.
Olson is chagrined by the amount of pressure that students are under. “Life has gotten hyper-competitive for kids,” he said.
“Compared to when I started 33 years ago, students at all age groups are under more pressure to succeed,” he said. “High school students, though, face a huge amount of pressure because the stakes are so high for college admission.”
And parents, he said, often don’t help with that.
At the end of this month, Olson and his wife Dawn, who have three grown children, are moving to Florida. They will be closer to Dawn’s family for a change, he said.
At 60, he is taking early retirement after 33 years in the Washington State public schools system. In Florida he will be Head of School for a private kindergarten to 8th grade school there.
The couple have looked at homes in their new town and Olson finds a good deal to like. Prices are good, the weather is better and the golf is plentiful.
Superintendent Gary Plano knows Olson’s leaving will be a loss.
“I want to commend Craig for his 20 years of outstanding service to Mercer Island students and families. Under his leadership, our school and athletic programs have thrived,” said MISD Superintendent Gary Plano.
“I wish him well on his next learning journey in Florida.”
It is bittersweet,” Olson said of the change. “I will miss the people here.