Passing of William Olson, Founder of Sigma Iota Rho


Dr. William Clinton Olson, Noted Author, Educator, And University Administrator, Dies at 92

By Peter M. Olson

NATO Legal Advisor and principal legal adviser to the Secretary General and the NATO civilian headquarters in Brussels

William C. Olson, of Gaithersburg, MD, passed away peacefully after a long illness at home on Friday October 26, 2012, surrounded by his family.  He is survived by his wife of 69 years, Mary Matthews Olson, his three children, and four grandchildren.  A memorial service will be held at a time and location to be announced.

Dr. Olson was born in Denver, CO on August 19, 1920 to Albert and Frances Olson.  "Oley" Olson graduated from the University of Denver in 1942.  He was married to Mary Elizabeth Matthews in 1943.  Captain Olson returned to Denver after five years of military service in WWII,  to work with his mentor Ben M. Cherrington, who founded the pioneering international relations program at the University of Denver and fostered Olson's lifelong interest in the field.  He then studied international relations at Yale University under the GI Bill, earning his PhD in 1953.

Dr. Olson then joined the faculty at Pomona College, Claremont, CA, where he developed the program in international relations.  Moving to Washington, DC, he directed the Foreign Affairs Division of the Legislative Reference Service at the Library of Congress from 1961 to 1965.  He was Associate Dean of Columbia University's School of International Affairs in New York from 1965 to 1967.  Olson then joined the Rockefeller Foundation, serving as director of its Bellagio Center at the Villa Serbelloni on Lake Como, Italy, from 1970 to 1979.   In 1980 he returned to the academic world as Dean of the School for International Service at American University in Washington, DC.  Dr. Olson retired in 1986

Deeply affected by the failure of the League of Nations and the catastrophic impact of World War II, Olson was profoundly committed to his chosen field of international relations.  As a young Air Force officer in London, he observed at first hand the earliest steps in creating post-war international structures including the United Nations.  Through a lifetime of teaching  and lecturing both in the United States and abroad, he  shared  his vision of the importance of international understanding and a pragmatic approach to advancing it.  His best-known work, “The Theory and Practice of International Relations,” co-authored with Fred Sondermann and other collaborators, went through  nine editions and was widely used throughout the world.  With A.J.R.  Groom he authored  "International Relations Then and Now".  Dr. Olson had a particular interest in explaining to global audiences the structural and political role of Congress in U.S. foreign policy, speaking on the topic twice yearly for nearly two decades at the NATO  Defense College.  For over twenty years, he participated in U.S. Information Agency programs as a lecturer, as he did at academic and other institutions in over 40 countries and scores of academic and professional institutions around the globe.  He  was awarded  an honorary  Doctor of Humane Letters by Denver University in 1992, was given the Honorary Ancien medal by the NATO Defense College and received awards and honors from many international organizations including the Inter-American Defense College, American Friends of Wilton Park, and the American University School of International Service.

Dr. Olson was an active participant in professional and related bodies including the Council on Foreign Relations, Washington Institute of Foreign Affairs, International Institute of Strategic Studies, International Studies Association and American Friends of Wilton Park, and served as a Trustee of the Experiment in International Living, the Social Science Foundation, and the Graduate School of International Studies at the University of Denver.  He was a member of the Phi Beta Kappa and Omicron Delta Kappa academic honor societies, the Cosmos Club (Washington, D.C.), and the Century Club (New York, NY).

Dr. Olson's first calling and unwavering professional focus was teaching, and he taught throughout his career.  In 1984 he founded Sigma Iota Rho, the international collegiate honor society of international studies, which today has over 100 chapters in North America.  The William C. Olson Award for Outstanding Teaching by a PhD Student is awarded annually by the School of International Service, American University.

Olson’s deepest personal satisfactions came from time spent with his beloved wife Betsy and their children, Eric, Peter, and Annie; his many friends; and the countless former students with whom he maintained close relationships throughout his life.    A gifted host and storyteller, he took boundless delight in forging and reinforcing connections among and between friends, colleagues and family.  To all of these he was steadfast in his support, guidance and love.

The family has set up a memorial website page, which provides everyone, including his students and friends, with a place to share anecdotes, pictures and other memories of WCO.  This is available to the public and may be of interest. Members of the society who knew him are invited to share stories on this page.