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Pleasanton Weekly

Column - July 25, 2008

Column

The Olsons, 10 years later

by Jeb Bing

It was 10 years ago this month that Jim Olson, a well-known Pleasanton landscaper, was driving the family van east on Interstate 80 with his wife Elaine at his side and two of their three children--Ashley, 14, and Lori, 11--in the two back seats. Halfway to their destination in Colorado, they ran into a sudden downpour at the eastern edge of Nevada. The van hydroplaned, Jim lost control and the vehicle rolled over twice before coming to a stop in a roadside ditch. Jim was killed instantly, Ashley, a freshman basketball star at Amador Valley high School, suffered a severed spine and was paralyzed from the waist down, Elaine suffered multiple injuries with Lori sustaining fewer but still serious broken bones and cuts. The three were airlifted by two helicopters to hospitals in Salt Lake City with Jim's body brought back to Pleasanton awaiting services. Kristina, then 19, had stayed home to attend classes at Diablo Valley College. She rushed to Salt Lake, where she spent a month nursing her mother and sisters and helping to buoy their spirits enough so that all could come back home. "She was the rock that kept us all going when we really didn't want to," her mother said.

Fast-forward to this week and it's remarkable how well the Olsons have recovered. Jim is very much in everyone's memory. Ashley has framed the covers of some of his favorite albums of bands in the 1970s and put them on the walls of the condominium she owns in San Ramon. Lori just returned from Costa Rica where she was following her father's passion for helping the poor and those in need. When she graduates from the University of Colorado next year, she'll also fulfill Jim and Elaine's goal of seeing all three girls obtain college degrees. Perhaps because of the accident, Lori is also focusing her future on working with the bereaved, particularly children who need special help after they've lost a loved one.

Kristina, now 30, the "rock," as her mother keeps calling her, is director of Massage Envy in Pleasanton Hill and also owns her own condo in San Ramon. A graduate of Cal Poly, her training in physical therapy helps patients such as her mother who have had major bone and back dislocations and rely on deep and long-lasting massages to regain their strength and mobility.

I interviewed Ashley a few years back when she was starting her freshman year at the University of Southern California, where she won a scholarship to participate in the school's famed Swim with Mike program for those in wheelchairs or with other physical challenges. Even though the USC campus is relatively flat, it was still filled with steps along often narrow pathways that made it difficult to navigate. Ashley, known locally for her work with CYO sports, is no shrinking violet despite her handicaps and graduated from USC with honors, hundreds of close friends and a legacy of clearing the hurdles wherever she found them. Now employed at Wente Vineyards as a concert/event production manager, she scheduled one of her dad's favorite musical groups this past June 9 on what would have been Jim Olson's 57th birthday.

The Olson family's road to recovery wasn't easy. Those of us who were here at the time remember, first, the shock over hearing about Jim, and then the realization that it was time to put on the volunteer hats and get to work to make sure Jim's wife and children had a home to come back to that would accommodate their new needs. Doors were widened, carpeting was replaced with wood floors to make wheelchairs more manageable, kitchen and bathroom counters were lowered and even the one-step entryway was "shaved" to make it an easy passageway. Although Ashley was permanently and the most seriously injured, all three--Elaine, Lori and Ashley--came home under the care of Kristina and to the thunderous roar of a crowd of well-wishers. For weeks, neighbors and other volunteers cooked meals for the family and made sure they had frequent trips around town to enjoy a movie, church and their many friends. Eventually, Elaine sold their two-story house and opted for a single floor structure near the tennis courts, where she still lives. She's finally an empty nester after 10 years of taking care of the home inside and out, paying the bills and getting the three girls off to college--all duties she used to share with Jim.

"I want those to know who so graciously aided in our recovery that we are doing well," Elaine asked me to convey to our readers. "Although the reality of what happened will never escape us, we do realize that without our Pleasanton community we would not be here." Added Lori: "Although I still at times have bad thoughts about what happened, the biggest thing is how breathtaking it was to see Pleasanton's community come together as one and lift up our family."

Comments

Posted by Cherrie Malone Vanlangendonck, a resident of Livermore
on Aug 5, 2008 at 11:12 pm

I had the pleasure of meeting the beautiful Ashley at Wente while visiting my Sister Connie. She made me feel right at home with her geniune kindness and I thought - wow she is so awesome. After a few meetings I feel I have a new friend,look forward to talking to her on the phone, and want to plan my next vacation around seeing her. The last thing I noticed about her was a wheelchair -subconsciencly however I was impressed at how she overcame "whatever happened" and excelled in life and was just Ashley. Your article made me realize what an ordeal these true life "Steel Magnolias" went through, and will always go through, and it makes me respect Ashley and her family even more. Pleasanton is also even more impressive as a community for pulling together and helping their own. Jim would be proud of all of the above. Cherrie from Louisiana