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A Eulogy for Paul Olson, Son of Africa

By Jim Ambrose & Paul Poore

08/09/2017

Paul and Margie have many friends who could not be at his memorial service to celebrate the life of this son of Africa. Were they not scattered around the world, the church would have been overflowing.

His friends knew him as a quiet man, contemplative, yet with a smiling joy for life and ready to contribute. We knew him as a fellow educator who saw the world through the lens of his youth in Kinshasa. Few of us attended schools like the ones we administered, so Paul was unique in making a career of it, even returning a few short years ago to be an interim principal at his alma mater, The American School of Kinshasa, Congo (TASOK).

His return to Africa may not have been preordained, but it was certainly predictable. It took a special person to head schools in Somalia, or in Rwanda when that country was in crisis and Paul led a convoy of teachers out of harm’s way, later closing the school down from a distance. Paul told harrowing stories of lying low during the genocide, emerging to find that more than 800,000 Rwandans had been killed. Bill Martin, a board member from that time, wrote, “Besides being difficult administratively and logistically, this was an emotionally challenging exercise that required savvy management, sensitive interpersonal skills, and great fortitude in dealing with issues ranging from death benefits for murdered Rwandan staff to severance for American teachers to negotiations with the Office of Overseas Schools of the Department of State on the closure of the school.” As a result, Paul was selected National Distinguished Principal in 1994 by the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

“With the same high standards for education that he displayed in his role as Director of the School, he ensured that the painful closure was done with great precision and attention to detail, and with great sensitivity and respect for the history and legacy of a fine American-run international academic institution.”

It may be difficult for many to understand that political turmoil in parts of the world is just normal background noise for international school administrators like Paul, so after a hiatus of four years in Brazil, he was called back to Africa to grow and expand the school in Addis Ababa and later deal with the collapsing economy in Zimbabwe. How many other school directors can say they kept a school functioning during years of hyperinflation? This gentle man had a backbone, as he demonstrated when Mugabe’s thugs came on campus to see how much they could extort from the foreigners; Paul stood his ground and didn’t give them an inch.

Paul’s supervisors often spoke of his wisdom, character, and rapport with all elements of the community, facilitated by his fluency in French and Lingala. Who was this white man who could speak like an African? He also loved music (especially African drumming) and to dance. Whenever the music started at school events, he headed for the dance floor.
In Dakar, where he served as Interim Director in a situation demanding stability, the School Board Chair wrote, “Paul has been fabulous for the International School of Dakar (ISD). He came into a situation that was challenging on a number of levels. With experience, skill, hard work, and purposefulness he has turned so much around and steered ISD back onto a positive path.”

Paul was a mentor. Russ Menard, currently Director of a school in Zambia, wrote that, “First and foremost of Paul’s lessons was to avoid being reactive. When things went pear-shaped (and they often did), he taught me to calm down and not get caught up in the hysteria and then to step back and think carefully about how to respond. I always marveled at his calm and thoughtful approach to whatever challenges arose—and those were mighty challenges in Zimbabwe!”

A teacher, a facilitator, a long-serving board member of the Association of International Schools in Africa, a consensus builder, bright, sincere, reflective, empathetic, hard-working, well-liked—the adjectives go on and on. In the end, he was our friend and his leadership and caring served people around the world. Midway through his two-year medical ordeal, Paul wrote that he was facing it “with all the defiance and robust optimism I can muster,” and he stayed in character until the end.

On behalf of all of us in international education, we bid a final farewell to our much-loved and humble colleague and friend.




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