By Julie Muhlstein Herald Columnist
Bremerton, Whidbey Island, Seattle’s Piers 90 and 91, Port Angeles, and Cherry Point near Bellingham were all on the list. Everett wasn’t.
It was 1982, not long after U.S. Sen. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson first publicly let on that the Navy had plans to homeport ships in Puget Sound. Jackson, a Democrat from Everett, shared that news in a 1981 speech to the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, according to a 1995 edition of the Shipping News Daily.
By 1982, the Navy had commissioned a technical study to review potential sites for a base. John Olsen was part of that study team.
A civil engineer, Olsen was executive vice president at Reid Middleton, Inc. The Everett engineering and planning firm was then based in Edmonds. With expertise in marina design, Olsen’s role in the study was to analyze water-side and upland aspects of the Navy base sites.
In Olsen’s mind, the list was missing the best place — Everett.
Working with the Port of Everett’s commissioners at the time, Olsen made sure Everett became part of the study. Today, Naval Station Everett stands as a testament to a man who knew waterfront engineering and saw a new future for Snohomish County.
Olsen died May 7 as a result of congestive heart failure. He was 79.
His work took him from the state Department of Transportation, where he played a part in designing I-5 in the 1960s, to his career capstone, designing ship facilities for Naval Station Everett.
“That for sure was the biggest feather in his cap,” said Kris Olsen, the eldest of Olsen’s three children. “Dad being such a specialist in that field, he looked at all the sites and decided Everett was where they needed to be.”
John Olsen’s name may be unfamiliar, but his unsung influence on our region was profound.
“He’s really well known for marinas,” said Shannon Kinsella, an engineer and waterfront group director at Reid Middleton. She has been at the firm 23 years, and worked with Olsen for a decade before he retired in 1997.
Olsen, she said, was the lead designer for the Port of Everett Marina, the Port of Edmonds Marina, John Wayne Marina in Sequim and the Des Moines Marina. “All those marinas, he did them from scratch,” Kinsella said. The design work involves creating breakwater protection, designing docks and shore features.
Kris Olsen works for the city of Lynnwood, where in the 1960s his father was the first city engineer. John Olsen raised his family in Lynnwood, but grew up in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. His parents were Norwegian immigrants.
John Olsen had wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps as a commercial fisherman, but Kris Olsen said his dad had back problems when he was young. After graduating from Ballard High School, he earned a degree in civil engineering from the University of Washington.
Kris Olsen recalled his father working on the Navy study. “I remember one day he was getting ready to fly somewhere. Unless he was going to Norway, he didn’t travel much, but he was going to San Diego,” Olsen said. “I asked him why. He said he was meeting with the secretary of the Navy. It was John Lehman. Even as a young kid, I knew that was a pretty big deal.”
Olsen said the best summer he ever had was the year he was about 13. His father invited him along while he did design work for a marina in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. Reid Middleton had an old wooden Chris-Craft boat that they lived on for the summer. “During the day, Dad would do what he did and I would spend the day running up and down the docks and fishing,” Olsen said. “I will never forget that summer, just me and my dad.”
John Olsen is survived by his wife, Sandra; sons, Kris and Doug; and daughter, Karen. In his later years, he spent much time at the family’s home at Lake McMurray near Mount Vernon. Doug Olsen works for Reid Middleton. The firm marks its 60th anniversary this year.
“He was just very sweet, he had this mischievous grin. He liked to tell Norwegian jokes,” Kinsella said. He was also very good at his profession.
“We’d be working on something for weeks. He’d take 10 or 15 minutes and say, ‘Oh, did you think about this?’” Kinsella said. Olsen’s wisdom soon became obvious to those who had studied a problem for months.
“If there’s a marina anywhere in Puget Sound, I think his fingerprints are on it,” Kris Olsen said. “He was such a humble man, you would never know he had anything to do with any of it.”
A celebration of life for John Olsen will be held 1-4 p.m. today at Sons of Norway Leif Erickson Lodge, 2245 NW 57th St., Seattle.
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, firstname.lastname@example.org.