JUNE 2006: Home arrow Alumni Homepage arrow Addicted to Saying Yes: Olmstead Honored for Thousands of Hours of Service
Addicted to Saying Yes: Olmstead Honored for Thousands of Hours of Service Print

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Marie Olmstead, '58.
For 17 years, Marie Olmstead, ’58, has served on a secret committee that selects the UW’s Alumnus Summa Laude Dignatus, informally known as the alumnus of the year. Established in 1938, it is the highest honor the University and the alumni association bestow on UW graduates.

For Olmstead, it’s a tough job. She says she loves reading about outstanding alumni who have made an impact on our world, but she admits there have been some “respectfully heated conversations” about who should receive the honor.

Over those 17 years, the UW has honored Nobel Prize winners, inventors, public servants, artists, educators and physicians. One selection she is particularly proud of is former astronaut Bonnie Dunbar, ’71, ’75, the 2004 alumna of the year. Dunbar grew up on a farm near Sunnyside. After earning two UW degrees, she became one of the most experienced female astronauts in the world—50 days in space covering 20.4 million miles in five space shuttle flights.

“She was a woman, a role model and firmly connected to the UW,” Olmstead says. Olmstead’s words of praise could just as easily be applied to the volunteer herself. Starting with her services on the UW Alumnae Board in 1976 (see sidebar), she has given thousands of hours to help the alumni association and the University.

To honor her 30 years of service, the tables have been turned. Instead of helping to hand out an award, Olmstead is receiving the 2006 UW Alumni Association Distinguished Service Award, which recognizes outstanding volunteer contributions to the alumni association and the University.

Within the UWAA, Olmstead’s service is legendary. She has served twice on the UWAA Board of Trustees. She worked for four years on a volunteer-development task force and for two years chaired the UWAA’s House Committee. She was also a member of the committee that changed the name of the alumni magazine to Columns.

But it is her hands-on work that is most memorable. Olmstead and her husband, Chuck, ’58, can be found at many alumni events doing mundane tasks such as scooping ice cream, handing out bagels or taking lecture-series tickets.

Her favorite volunteer duty comes at Finals Bites, where the alumni association offers free food to students cramming for final exams in Odegaard Library. The late-night event usually feeds more than 600 students and Olmstead is the official greeter to all of them. “I love being around younger people,” she explains. “And I get to talk to them about the value of the alumni association and the importance of the University.”

Once Olmstead got to share the greeting responsibilities with another UW alumnus—President Mark Emmert, ’75. “It was so much fun to have the President there,” she recalls. “Almost every kid had a cell phone with a camera and they all had their pictures taken with the President.”

Preserving and protecting her alma mater is close to her heart. Normally gracious and charming, Olmstead can become a little testy when discussing the lack of state funding. “We’ve got to educate our elected officials that the biggest asset in our state is higher education,” she declares. “We have one of the lowest levels of state support per capita in the nation. Our leaders—especially our leaders in industry—need to understand this is one of our finest resources.”

Olmstead is unabashedly addicted to volunteerism. Despite raising four children and working part-time as a dental hygienist, over the years she has also volunteered for the Junior League, Swedish Hospital, the Children’s Hospital Guild, the American Cancer Society, the March of Dimes and the Bellevue Schools Foundation. She has been an elder and a deacon at her church and served as director of development for Youth Eastside Services for 22 years.

But the University of Washington holds a special place in her heart. “My family has always valued the UW and higher education. To live in this wonderful community and be able to have an education at a great university, it’s a gift. The happiest days of my dad’s life were the days my brother and I graduated from college,” she says.

Devoting so much time and energy to the UW is its own reward, she adds. “I’ve always gotten more back than I have given.”—Tom Griffin