Giant #4 – Skip Olsen

“if I have seen further [than others], it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

1675 letter by Isaac Newton:

Skip Olsen was my best buddy and my partner in developing our Learning Omnivores website. He was the person doing technology and was a great storyteller and co-presenter at several state and national conferences. Skip’s passing January 1, 2021, left a hole in my heart, and I am taking time to remember Skip and to tell you all he meant to me.

I lost my best buddy and, in the weeks, months, and years later, I still want to pick up the phone and call him; we talked so often. Who knew that in 1995 when I was principal at Minneapolis South High School and Skip was a union representative for Local 59 in the Minneapolis school system that we would become lifelong friends. One day Skip walked into my office and said, “We have a grievance here.” Shocked, I said, “Who? What? I am not aware of anything.” Skip said, “It’s not you, it is between two of your teachers.” I was both relieved and concerned.  We brought both teachers to my office and spent over an hour working on a resolution. Finally, Skip said, “Let’s take a break,” and both teachers left.  Skip turned to me and said, “I want to slap both of them!”

Who knew that this would be the start of a deep and lifelong friendship. After the meeting concluded, Skip looked at my bookshelf and said, “I don’t know many principals who are reading these kinds of books.”  We scheduled another conversation for two weeks later, and as we talked, we agreed to continue meeting to see if together we could make a difference in education.

When I taught leadership at colleges and universities, I asked Skip to join me so we could teach from the perspective of an administrator and a teacher.  The approach was masterful as we included different and common viewpoints in our presentations.

When Education Minnesota started to focus on professional development, Skip and Sara Gjerdrum invited me, a principal, to work on a program called TALL (Teachers as Leaders and Learners).  For about ten years we presented professional development training throughout the state. Our trainings were Friday night and all-day Saturday, and we delivered good work with actionable strategies.

At one of the TALL trainings in January in Duluth, MN, a snowstorm started on Saturday morning.  I said, I wanted to leave so I didn’t have to spend another night away because of snow.  We did a working lunch, quickly finished the training early, and started packing up. One participant came up to us and asked, “May I have a copy of all the stories you used during the training?”  We looked at each other and told him that we just remember the stories and do not have them documented. He responded, “You should write a book.”  Skip and I discussed this on the way home; that became the inspiration for future endeavors together.

That spring we took a trip to San Francisco for the weekend.  We drove to Tiburon, sat by the water, and created themes as headings for our stories.  Voila, our first book together, called a Trainers Companion, had twenty-five stories with research, quotes, and ways to introduce the topics. AHAProcess, Inc. published the book.  Who knew that could have predicted, that a question asked by a participant in our training session, would have resulted in working together on our first book!

Skip and I continued to collaborate. Skip dragged me kicking and screaming into technology to expediate our writing; I was and remain a neophyte in technology. Skip was always current and up to date with changes. I am grateful for all he taught me, and Skip’s coaching kept me more focused.  A few years later, after we started using many videos in trainings, we wrote another book for Corwin Press, Energizing Staff Development Using Film Clips.  After that we wrote two more projects for the Habits of Mind organization, Trainers Companion for HOM, an eBook. Again, we embraced challenges and forged ahead with new projects.

About three years ago, while I was having lunch with Skip, he said, “You look like crap!”  I said, “Thank you,” but I was a little taken aback.  It was a Saturday, and Skip was adamant that I needed to go to urgent care to get checked out now.  I resisted because I am tough (ok too much testosterone and am an ex-jock!).  I am also hard-headed at times. (I know that is a surprise to many of you).  Skip would not let up until I agreed to go to the clinic.  A few hours later I was in the hospital getting treated for congestive heart failure.  I truly believe Skip saved my life that day, and I am profoundly grateful.

Skip, Diane Zimmerman, and I started organizing learning opportunities around the country.  We called ourselves the “Learning Omnivores,” and our website is We have worked with some of the top people in education and business.  Skip, Diane, Art Costa, and I met for many years, often retreating to Lake Tahoe for three days to share what we were learning and to speculate on the future of education.  I named us ‘Bricoleur Buddies.’  A bricoleur is one who tinkers with ideas.

Because of Skip’s illness, he missed our last meeting in October 2020; we missed him and his impact on our meetings. Skip loved poetry; he always had a poem to start and end each meeting.  At first, being a physics/math guy, when I heard poetry, I wanted to scream “Give me a break!”  Skip’s voice and listening to him read caused me to think deeply about the messages. This reflection changed what I thought of poetry. This was another of the many gifts of the deep friendship Skip and I shared.

I will close with a poem sent to me from a friend.  I sent this to Skip and a few others during the holiday season. I am grateful for the people who have been on my train. We may never know the influence and impact we have on each other. Take to heart the message below.

Train of Life

At birth we boarded a train and met our parents, and we believe they will always travel on our side.  However, at some station our parents will step down from the train, leaving us on this journey alone.  As times goes by, other people will board the train and they will be significant (i.e. our siblings, friends, children, and even the love of your life).  Many will step down and leave a permanent vacuum. Others will go on unnoticed that we don’t realize they vacated their seats.  This train ride will be full of joy, sorrow, fantasy, expectations, hellos, goodbyes, and farewells. Success consists of having a good relationship with all passengers requiring that we give the best of ourselves.  The mystery to everyone is:  We do not know at which station we ourselves will step down.  So, we must live in the best, love, forgive, and offer the best of who we are.  It is important to do this because when the time comes for us to step down and leave our seat empty, we should leave behind beautiful memories for those who will continue to travel on the train of life.  I wish you a joyful journey on the train of life.  Reap success and give lots of love. More importantly, thank God for the journey.  Lastly, I thank you for being one of the passengers on my train.

Rest well good buddy and Mahalo for your gifts.