Remembering Harry A. Olson
Harry Augustus Olson June 27, 1924 ~ July 4, 2020 (age 96) [This history was provided by the family of Harry Olson.]
Harry A. Olson died July 4, 2020, at the age of 96. Formerly of Manayunk. Husband of the late Dorothy Dunst. Father of David J. Olson (Midge), Jack H. Olson (Linda) and Kimberly Magers (John). Grandfather of seven and great-grandfather of fourteen.
Harry was born at a farm house on Rose Glen Road in Gladwyne, PA. He was a preemie born at six months and weighting only four pounds. Harry was one of four kids. His father, John Olsson (they dropped one "S" in the last name going through immigration) was from Sweden working on farms in Princeton, New Jersey and Gladwyne, PA. The great grandparents of Sara Barr Olson (Harry's mother) were from Ireland. Harry grow up on a farm in Lower Merion. Harry’s father bought an ice delivery route and had a contract hauling trash for the Lower Merion School District.
Harry attended the Lower Merion School District. Harry was a star soccer player that won the Suburban Soccer Championship in his junior year 1942. Harry was drafted into the Army in February of his senior year. A number of his classmates were drafted at that time and the School district awarded all the draftees their High School Diplomas.
Harry was sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky, for basic and training as a tank mechanic for the M4 and M5 (Sherman) tanks. One night while on maneuvers, he was sleeping in a fox hole and a heavy rain filled the hole with rain water. Harry said that he heard the Air Corps sleep in clean dry beds every night, so he transferred to the Army Air Corps. He was transferred to Avon Park and Panama City, FL and Tucson Arizona for bomber crew training. He trained as a tail gunner in B-24s and B-17s.
Harry and his crew from Arizona arrived in Liverpool, England, in December 1944. Harry and his crew were assigned to the 748th Bomber Squadron at Peterborough, England. Harry was known as “Ollie” by his crew. Harry flew approximately 22 missions as either the tail or ball gunner including the major efforts to free Berlin and Dresden. Harry was awarded four air medals and was discharged in October 1945.
After the Army, Harry worked as a mechanic for Chevrolet Agency. Harry’s parents moved to Manayunk during the war and he married the girl down the street in 1947. Dorothy Dunst lived seven doors down from Harry’s parents and he said that they meet when he was rounding the corner and almost hit her with his car.
Harry entered Quaker City School of Aeronautics and graduated with a Federal Aircraft/Aircraft Engine license and went to work for Piasecki Helicopter. Piasecki was purchased by Boeing and Harry worked on the CH46 and CH47 Chinook Helicopters. Harry worked in flight test most of his career. He was certified to fly, in tie down mode, placing strain on the rotors and engines for testing. He also flew on test flights making in-air adjustments to the engines and transmissions. He retired in 1989 from Boeing Vertol in Ridley Township.
Harry was a founding member of the Gladwyne VFW Post 6956. He was very active in purchasing a property along River Road and constructing the buildings on the property. Harry served in numerous capacities including Post Commander. Harry was involved in organizing the Memorial Day parades in Gladwyne and overseeing the school children’s essay contest that was held each Memorial Day. Harry, several years ago, worked with the VFW and Disabled Veterans to install a handicapped accessible fishing pier in the Schuylkill River at the VFW post. Harry was good at organizing the volunteer labor and getting grants and free material from area businesses.
Harry was on the Charter committee that established the Roxborough, Manayunk, Wissahickon Historical Society and served as the President of the society. In 1976, as president of the society, Harry worked on the Wagon Train Parade and Encampment celebration with a wagon train headed west from Philadelphia and encamped at Roxborough High School field on a stop heading west. Harry was an expert on the Revolutionary War and the movement of troops within the Philadelphia Region. Having records of encampment, Harry worked on identifying troop movement between encampments.
Harry worked on the development of the Manayunk Canal and businesses along Main Street in Manayunk. In 1974, Harry presented a proposal to the Sierra Club to develop a trail to connect the Liberty Bell to Valley Forge, hoping to combine funds from the restoration of the Manayunk Canal. Harry opposed a state proposal to fill in the Manayunk Canal and fought to preserve the historical canal. Harry was a member of the Manayunk Canal Committee that organized “Canal Day” celebration on Main Street. Harry himself dressed in period clothes and discussed with residents the history of Manayunk and the Canal.
Harry was a committee member of the Cub and Boys Scouts with his sons. Harry was involved in camping trips with the Scouts and was instrumental in getting local troops to join the “Paddlerama” which was a Scout sponsored 50-mile canoe race. Harry was an instructor during a qualification weekend with the Scouts and earned a Red Cross Certification as a canoe instructor. Harry started a whitewater canoe training course on the Schuylkill River below the Flat Rock Dam.
Harry joined the Schuylkill River Heritage Committee representing Montgomery County. Harry worked on developing the trail from Philadelphia to Valley Forge. Harry focused on developing the bicycle trail as a historical trail with makers along the way. Harry championed trails within the Philadelphia region and proposed a trail from Bartram Gardens to Valley Forge. Harry worked on the committee with the Schuylkill River Heritage Corridor to designate historical areas within the Schuylkill River Corridor. Harry was about to develop a trail section in Lower Merion Township from Flat Rock Dam down to Belmont Avenue. Harry developed this trail with volunteers and his sweat and hard work. A political entity on the other side of the river, afraid Harry’s efforts would infringe on his commercial development, had a “cease and desist” order issue to stop Harry from using heavy equipment to develop his trail. Harry asked if a wheel barrow and shovel was considered as heavy equipment. Harry proceeded to dig and move heavy boulders with come-alongs and was able to develop a trail from the steep slopes along the bank of the Schuylkill River. Lower Merion Township rewarded Harry for his efforts on the trails within the township by designating a section of the Trail as the “Olson Trail” -- signage has been posted on the trail by the Township. Harry has been designated as “Man of the Year” and numerous other acknowledgements over the years for his contributions to the community.
On the 2019 anniversary of the Manayunk Canal, Harry was recognized by City of Philadelphia. During a meeting with residents, the city presented a plan to dredge and restore the Manayunk Canal. To learn more about the Manayunk Canal's history and Harry Olson's involvement,
see the Philadelphia Inquirer's article "The Manayunk Canal almost became the Manayunk Expressway. Here’s how it was saved."
Relatives and friends are invited to a Funeral Mass on Thursday, July 9 at 10 a.m. at St. Titus Church, 3006 Keenwood Rd, East Norriton, PA. Interment is in Calvary Cemetery.
In lieu of flowers donations may be may to Roxborough Manayunk Wissahickon Historical Society, Attention Sylvia Myers, 6245 Ridge Ave. Philadelphia, PA 19128.