Maj. Gen. Thomas R. Olsen, 1934-2014: Retired major general, local leader mourned

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Thomas Olsen served his country in the Air Force for more than 30 years, reaching the rank of major general.

But once he retired, as Tuomey Foundation director Jeff Faw said of the foundation board's former chairman, "that was only the beginning of his accomplishments."

For the last two decades of his life, Olsen enmeshed himself in his adopted community of Sumter before passing away Sunday at the age of 79. The native Texan took up several influential posts, not the least of which was husband to a Sumter woman and father to her children.

"When my first husband died and his wife died, God just brought us together," said Jackie Olsen, the general's wife. "It was never a union anybody would have thought about, but I spent the best years of my life with Tom. He never skipped a day without saying 'I love you.'"

The Olsens married in 1998, after his wife and her husband, who served with Olsen on the USC-Sumter Partnership Educational Foundation, passed away within a few months of each other. Olsen reached out to her and even invited her young son Mason to visit the flight lines at Shaw Air Force Base, where he was the former vice commander of the Ninth Air Force.

"That was a way to help him with the death of his father, and also to help Tom with his loneliness," Jackie Olsen said.

Since the future Mrs. Olsen was also raising a teenaged daughter, Olsen invited her out for some "adult conversation." When the general then went to Houston to care for his ailing mother, "we racked up a $1,700 phone bill talking to each other," she said.

Olsen joined the Air Force in 1957 after graduating from Texas A&M and was twice stationed at Shaw, in between deployments to Europe and Asia. He retired from the Sumter air base in 1991 after overseeing allied air operations in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War.

Upon his retirement from the service, Olsen became the first director of the Sumter Base Defense Committee, where he coordinated relations between the Sumter community and Shaw and led the area through four rounds of federal base closures between 1991 and 2005.

"I can't count the number of doors Tom Olsen opened," said Steve Creech, who was mayor at the time Olsen was hired and later served with him on the S.C. Military Task Force on base closures. "He knew the base from the inside, but he could say everything in a way civilians could understand."

Maj. Gen. William "Dutch" Holland led the Ninth Air Force during Olsen's time with the city and succeeded him after Olsen's 17 years in the director's post.

"Not only did Shaw not decrease, much less close down, it actually grew thanks to his leadership in the community and the state," Holland said.

Olsen found time to serve in several other community groups. Starting in 1995, he also served as the founding chairman of the Tuomey Foundation, the charitable arm of the regional hospital system, and helmed the foundation's board right up until his death, helping the Tuomey Foundation raise an estimated $13 million under his chairmanship.

"He was just the kind to volunteer to help other people," Faw said. "He was the best servant-leader I've ever seen. Instead of barking orders, he would always say 'what can I do to help?'"

That's how his wife remembers him as well.

"He was a big teddy bear," she said. "His heart led the way, and he was loved because he was gentle and kind and never said an unkind word to anybody."

As well as his wife and stepchildren, Mason and Mary Geddings, Olsen is survived by two adult children from his first marriage, Richard Olsen and Lisa Wesolick, who both reside in South Dakota.

"I was fortunate. Some people don't have one good father, and I had two amazing fathers," Mary Geddings said. "He told everybody he met his daughter was in nursing school and how proud he was of what I was doing."

If his daughter's career path didn't ensure Olsen's legacy would live on, Faw said he wants to see the late chairman memorialized by the foundation.

"His dream was to see Tuomey build a hospice," he said. "My regret is he didn't live to see it, but we're going to make his dream come true, and it'll have his name on there somewhere."

- Bristow Marchant