Walking and talking with Stan Olson

Walking with Stan Olson
For retired Boise schools superintendent Stan Olson, left, a long training walk is a way to leave troubles behind. “Eight miles later, I’m going, ‘What was that?’” Training for another Chicago Marathon, Olson says he has walked about 3,000 miles so far in 2014.

Like anyone who trains seriously, Stan Olson adheres to routines.

Passers-by on the Greenbelt get a chipper greeting from the retired Boise schools superintendent. Olson tosses handfuls of peanuts at a few squirrels; themselves creatures of habit, the squirrels approach when they see Olson coming. Olson disposes wrappers and trash he spots along the way. When he reaches a shaded underpass, his brisk walk accelerates to a short jog.

The biggest routine is his mileage regimen. Olson logs about 60 miles a week on the Boise River Greenbelt.

It was that habit — those almost-daily walks — that led to this story.

At our offices along the Greenbelt, we routinely see Olson heading out, or heading back. As this curiosity grew commonplace, my editor, Jennifer Swindell, said we should tag along to talk about training, and education. (I like to believe I was dispatched because of my unique qualifications; I’m a diehard runner and I’m training for my second marathon, the Seattle Marathon on Nov. 30.)

Sometimes, reporters flee “offbeat” story ideas like Usain Bolt aided by a strong tailwind. But this one sounded like a fun way to spend a summer morning at, for lack of another term, work.

Comparing notes

By the time we met up, Olson had already put in five miles. Not that exaggerated, intricate race-walk gait favored by competitive walkers; Olson used to race-walk but says he was always “crummy” at the technique. But not a leisurely Greenbelt amble either. I knew this would be challenging.

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We settled into a good pace and quickly started swapping notes about running.

We talked about what we listen to while training. Olson is old-school enough to remember Walkmen that would spit out cassette tapes at inopportune moments, and portable CD players that skipped at any jostle. He’ll listen to some NPR, and his iPod contains an eclectic mix of oldies, classic rock, folk, Gershwin and, owing to his Detroit roots, plenty of Motown. Like me, he puts the device on shuffle and see what happens. “It’s a true blessing when you find the music, the movement and mood are simpatico.”

Of course, we talked races. Ask any chagrined non-racer who knows a racer: racers love to talk about races. Don’t get us started.

Olson is training for the Chicago Marathon on Oct. 12. This is itself a routine; he has walked Chicago each of the past 25 years — except for one year when he walked the famed New York Marathon instead. (I paid extra attention; both marathons are on my to-do list.)

Olson first signed up for Chicago when he was working in Kalamazoo, Mich. Like many marathon signups, it resulted from a group of friends talking about stepping up from shorter races to the 26.2-mile challenge. And yes, Olson said, a few drinks had been consumed before the commitment was made.

He vividly remembers his first Chicago as a harsh lesson in “the curse of cotton.” He wore cotton clothes and socks and relatively new shoes, and finished blistered and bloodied. “It was a miserable experience.” But he and his group decided to read up and try to do better the following year.

Since then — and on a career that has taken Olson to Casper, Wyo., and Boise — Chicago has become a tradition. And for reasons familiar to any racer. It’s a physical challenge; his best finish was in the 4:30 range. It’s a chance to experience the race with a group of friends. An excuse for a roadtrip. And a race-day rush shared with a community of competitors.

And those race-day finisher’s shirts? Olson tends to give his away. When they start to pile up, he says, he wife issues an ultimatum: Either the shirts go, or she goes. “After 43 years, it’s easier to get rid of the T-shirts.”

Olson has watched the Chicago Marathon grow. It now draws elite runners — and many of the 45,000 entrants have to get in through a lottery. Olson, as a legacy entrant, is set for life. He misses the more intimate event he discovered 25 years ago. But Olson, who turns 65 in September, is committed to going back as many years as he can.

 A ‘profoundly fortunate’ community

Like all of us who train in our home town — and train and train — Olson is well-attuned to his surroundings. He figures he has walked Ann Morrison Park a thousand times in the past three years, appreciating the park system while picking up after litterbugs. But his connection is also shaped by his seven years as Boise’s superintendent.

Olson guided the district through a 2006 bond issue. Despite declining enrollment, the district convinced voters to invest $94 million to replace aging schools and revitalize several neighborhoods. Boise also passed a supplemental levy in 2012, nearly two years after Olson’s retirement, but the district’s tax status helped Boise ride out the recession. As a charter district, preceding Idaho statehood, Boise retains unusual taxing authority.

Boise is a “profoundly fortunate” district, Olson said. One result is an ability to build programs that attract about 1,200 students from outside district borders — and the latitude to innovate. There are a lot of quality teachers across the state, but Boise is uniquely positioned to innovate. “You’ve got to have the resources, human and material, to do those types of things. And most districts in the state don’t.”

 Watching the elections

In October 2010, three months after retiring as Boise superintendent, Olson was a candidate at a crossroads. He was running as a Democrat against an established incumbent, GOP State Superintendent Tom Luna, and racing against time. Still, he went back to Chicago, over the objections of campaign staffers.

The discussion went something like this:

“I said, ’You know, you need a break, I need a break.’

“‘Oh, it’s a critical weekend.’

“‘Yes it is, and do good work.’”

This year, Olson is an interested election observer.

Not surprisingly, Olson backs Democratic gubernatorial candidate A.J. Balukoff, an 18-year Boise school trustee. In order to win, Balukoff would need to tap into the same voter unrest that led to the 2012 defeat of Luna’s Propositions 1, 2 and 3. But Olson admires Balukoff’s command of education topics. For Gov. Butch Otter, said Olson, education seems like just another issue.

Olson is tepid about the 20 recommendations from Otter’s education task force. “I think they’re a positive step forward. But a lot of it is the same old, same old.”

Olson knows Jana Jones, the Democrats’ candidate for state superintendent. The former deputy state superintendent, who narrowly lost to Luna in 2006, has the experience to hit the ground running. Olson has never met the Republican nominee, Sherri Ybarra, but from what he’s heard, he likes her track record as a Mountain Home administrator. Ybarra has “an educator’s base,” Olson said, and seems unlikely to be an ideologue.

Phone pitches — and flex time

Four years ago, Olson was getting an education in one of the dirty jobs of running for office: dialing for campaign dollars. “You’re on the phone two to three hours a day,” he said. “It’s disgusting. I hated every minute of that part of it, but you’ve got to do it.”

These days, when Olson works the phones, he pitches a product. He works for Silverback Learning Solutions, a Boise company trying to carve out a niche in the educational software sector. Silverback’s core product, Mileposts, is designed to help teachers track student growth, and identify learning resources to help plug in holes in a student’s education.

Olson’s job is to use his connections, from the Midwest to Wyoming, to find districts that might be interested in buying the software. Silverback has clients in Idaho and 17 other states. And in Idaho, the market may be up for grabs. After Idaho piloted the Schoolnet instructional management system — funded, in part, through a three-year, $20.5 million grant from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation — the 2014 Legislature decided to provide districts $2 million to shop for their own systems. That means they could spend their money on Schoolnet, Mileposts or some other system.

Olson works a flexible schedule: full-time some weeks, part-time some weeks, some weeks off. He and other staffers agreed to work fewer hours, in exchange for stock options — in order to maximize salaries for highly mobile engineers and code writers.

Of course, a flexible work schedule provides all the more time for the Greenbelt.

After 2 ¾ hours, and eight miles or so, the walk ended where it started, at our offices. Even on a relatively cool summer’s day, it was a demanding workout. The conversation — a mix of talking about racing, education and politics — came much more easily.

Disclaimer: Idaho Education News is funded through a grant from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation.