It was not work to work for Hank OlsonSo you know that scene near the end of “The Wizard of Oz” where Toto sticks his furry nose where it doesn’t belong (again), pulls aside a green curtain, and reveals that some ordinary guy is really the Great and Powerful Oz?
So you know that scene near the end of “The Wizard of Oz” where Toto sticks his furry nose where it doesn’t belong (again), pulls aside a green curtain, and reveals that some ordinary guy is really the Great and Powerful Oz?
Well, that’s the way I felt last week when I saw that Hank Olson had passed away.
Hank was one of the behind-the-scenes guys down at DECC, and chances are you never heard of him. But if you attended a concert, boat show, circus or any other event at the former Duluth Arena-Auditorium over the years, chances are extremely high that you were the beneficiary of his work.
Hank was the Overnight Labor Crew Foreman, which is a fancy way of saying he was in charge of making sure events were set up and ready to roll, and that the mess left behind by people attending said events was thoroughly cleaned up.
Figure skating competition on Sunday in Pioneer Hall? Hank was in charge of getting the ice sheet in place, the portable seating dragged in and locked down, and the multi-colored padded chairs in position to receive those ice-cold posteriors.
A Minnesota Power business luncheon on the following Monday in the very same Pioneer Hall location? Hank’s crew pulled out that ice, folded up and put away those portable stands, then flopped down and rolled around hundreds of round tables and chairs that were set up in precise patterns for all the muckety-mucks who would be attending.
And this was just Pioneer Hall. In fact, Hank was responsible for every single venue contained within the vast confines of the Arena-Auditorium.
If there was a DSSO Symphony Concert over in the auditorium, for example, Hank made sure every row was swept clean and every restroom was mopped and restocked. And let me tell you, those symphony patrons used a LOT of paper towels and had a lousy aim.
How do I know that? I worked for Hank for five years and was part of the crew that DID all that sweeping and mopping and hauling and schlepping and cleaning and setting up and tearing down of events.
Even though I quickly learned the term “labor crew” was NOT a misnomer (the callouses on my callouses are still evident to this day), I don’t recall those five years as being particularly laborious.
Hank kept the workplace fun and loose. He was one of the management higher-ups at the Arena, but he also blended in perfectly with the ragtag bunch of part-time teenagers he oversaw.
Hank didn’t always shave (why bother when your work shift is 11 at night to 7:30 the next morning?), he enjoyed gallons of dark brown, scalding hot liquid he identified as “coffee,” and, as long as the work was getting done, Hank had no problem letting a 15-minute break stretch out for an extra five or 10 minutes, especially if a hotly contested game of blackjack had broken out among the crew.
Hank was the first boss I had when I entered the work force in 1980 and I was spoiled by that. Of the many leadership styles I’ve experienced since then, none have equaled Henry’s rare combination of being laid back while simultaneously leaving no doubt as to who was in charge.
At Christmas time, Hank threw holiday parties for his crew that I’m certain were not formally approved by anyone upstairs at the Arena.
A good fart joke wasn’t beneath Hank; in fact, he enjoyed laughing at them as well as delivering them with gusto.
When I quit the labor crew to move on to “bigger and better things” in California, and then came limping back after only two months, Hank rehired me immediately, with no questions asked or sarcastic putdowns employed. (OK, maybe a couple.) Quite simply, Hank was the best boss a goofball like me could ever have.
I saw Hank only a couple of times over the years after I quit drawing an Arena paycheck, and I’m not sure he even remembered how he knew me.
I did become friends with a few of my labor crew cohorts, however, and we continue to keep in touch today, even though life has taken us in different trajectories away from the graveyard shift at Harbor Drive.
But, truth be told, Hank is the one who has had the greatest influence on me. His common-sense leadership, his bone-dry sense of humor, and his ability to get quality performances out of non-motivated, sarcastic know-it alls, have remained stuck in my psyche forever.
Whenever I have a chance to lead a group of folks in any endeavor, I think of Hank and those days (or rather, overnights) at the former Duluth Arena-Auditorium, and try to follow his example. Sometimes I’m successful. Sometimes not. But then again, I’m not Hank Olson. Sadly, there won’t be another one.
Rest in peace, Henry. You earned it. And I bet that even God sits up a little straighter and starts to look busy when the sound of your enormous key ring comes jangling down those heavenly hallways.
Brian Matuszak is the co-founder of Renegade Comedy Theatre, founder of Rubber Chicken Theater, and can sweep out an Arena seating section like nobody’s business.