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Heidi Shaffer, Published July 17 2009

Iconic photo part Olson's lasting legacy

During the 1957 Fargo tornado, Forum photographer Cal Olson captured an iconic image many still associate with the disaster more than 50 years later.

Olson died Thursday in a Duluth, Minn., hospital at age 84, after falling and striking his head Wednesday at his cabin on Big Island Lake in Itasca County.

He joined The Forum staff in 1950 and was named photo chief in 1957. Olson went on to serve as both city and managing editor.

“He always just said what he wanted to be remembered for was one word – newspaperman,” said Olson’s daughter, Cathy McMullen of Fargo. “I think what that meant was a real passion for the news, a passion for telling stories … and he just had a hell of a lot of fun doing it.”

At age 32, Olson went out to cover the June 20, 1957, tornado that ripped through north Fargo, killing 12, including six children from the Munson family.

McMullen, who was 5 years old at the time, remembers her father telling her he didn’t know if he should take the photo of Dick Shaw cradling the lifeless body of Jeanette Munson that later became famous.

Olson took the photo, which ran on the front of the next day’s Forum.

“There are certain pictures that are just etched in your mind because of the human emotion, and that’s just one of them,” said Colburn Hvidson III, who was a high school senior when the photo was taken and later a Forum photo chief. “It’s the signature picture of Cal’s and of the tornado.”

Today a copy of that paper still hangs in the entrance of the Forum building, and it remains one of the most important events the paper has covered. The staff won a Pulitzer Prize, the highest award in journalism, in 1958 for its coverage.

“He was very proud of (the photo), but he was equally proud of the whole effort of the staff that won the Pulitzer,” McMullen said.

McMullen is a journalism professor at Concordia, a profession she learned about from watching her father.

“It was just something about the excitement and pride that he had about his job that kind of made it seem like about the most exciting thing you could do,” McMullen said.

John Lohman worked with Olson during the tornado and in the years afterward as Olson moved up to managing editor.

“He smiled a lot and was a happy man,” said Lohman, a former editor at the newspaper. “He liked to get his own way, and I think most of us do. He liked his leadership role.”

Pat Gerlach, a Wing, N.D., wildlife photographer, knew Olson for most of his life through Olson’s friendship with his father.

“He was always an inspiration to me,” said Gerlach, who also worked under Olson as a Forum intern in the early 1970s and hunted along side him as Olson wrote his wildlife columns.

“He’s just so intertwined in my life on so many levels,” Gerlach said.

Olson was born Nov. 13, 1924, in Vining, Minn. He attended Minnesota schools in Vining, Hawley and Ulen.

During World War II, Olson served in the Navy Air Corps and was discharged as a naval aviation cadet.

Before, during and after the war, Olson attended several schools, including what is now Minnesota State University Moorhead, and earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota’s School of Journalism.

On April 16, 1950, he married Joanne Salomonson of Hitterdal, Minn.

Olson was the city editor of the Moorhead Daily News from 1948 to 1950, when he joined The Forum as a reporter and photographer.

In 1966, he won widespread acclaim and recognition for stories during a one-month trip to Vietnam, where he met with and wrote about North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota servicemen in Vietnam.

In 1975, Olson took a leave of absence to teach journalism courses and serve as publisher of The Advocate, MSUM’s student-run newspaper. He returned to The Forum briefly in 1976 before joining Public Television’s KFME, and in 1978, Olson was named editor of the Sioux City (Iowa) Journal. He retired in 1989.

Olson is survived by his wife, Joanne Olson; daughter, Catherine (Michael) McMullen; son, Charles (Kimberly Lich) Olson.

A prayer service will be at 7 p.m. July 27 in First Lutheran Church in Sioux City. The memorial service will be July 28 at 11 a.m. in the church.


Cal Olson served two terms as president of the National Press Photographers Association. In addition, he won several awards:

Readers can reach Forum reporter Heidi Shaffer at (701) 235-7311