No.10 Pencil At The Tip Of A Nimble Mind and Witty Tongue
Mildred Olson’s Contributions Are Without Measure
By Denise Windley
Like clockwork Mildred Olson would travel, at times by car, oftentimes on foot, from her home in central Payson to the city police station. Armed with a No. 10 pencil and legal size notepad she would pore through stacks of the week’s records, transcribing the disputes and malfeasances handled by police with her elegant penmanship held at the tip of a nimble mind and witty tongue. Mildred spent hours composing the Payson Police Report, which ran weekly in The Payson Chronicle for over twenty years. The job, often thankless, was one among countless others she dedicated herself to, voluntarily, throughout her life. From authoring the police report to co-founding Payson City Youth Court, Mildred Olson's contributions to the community over the years are without measure.
Mildred’s personal history is as remarkable.
She was born Mildred Williams in a modest home in Spanish Fork. The house still stands. An aged picket fence stretches across the front yard, evoking tales penned by Mark Twain, a few by Mildred, too, who authored “Good Old Days,” a column in The Payson Chronicle, a nod to a bygone era.
“You wouldn’t know it, but part of it was adobe, covered over,” Mildred said of her childhood home when The Payson Chronicle met up with her last week at Parkway Health Center in Payson, where she currently resides. “I didn’t know it until someone told me- that it was part of what Grandpa built.”
Grandpa being the late Benjamin Williams. Her parents, Benjamin Ernst and Sarah Louise Jones Williams, raised Mildred and her sisters and brother, Marie, Catherine, Elizabeth, and Jones there. “It wasn’t a big home,” said Mildred. “Marie and I slept on what was called the divan. I guess it would be what you would call a living room couch.” It was pulled out each night for the sisters to use as their bed.
“Momma always had an iron wrapped in a newspaper at the very bottom where my feet would be, because my legs ached constantly,” Mildred said. At night Marie would entertain her younger sister by relaying the particulars of films she watched at the local movie theater. “She was a pretty good storyteller,” Mildred said. “Even back then.”
When it came to playing outdoors, Mildred did not let the leg aches get in her way. The Williams kids would gather with neighborhood friends for endless games, breaking up into teams for competitions that held little concern for winning. “We’d just laugh and have a good time,” said Mildred. “And we played until our mothers called us in. Oh, it was fun. It was really fun! We had a light pole out- just kitty corner from our house, about a half a block. It was a dim light, but we played under that light. We’d go out at night and play until our folks would say, ‘That’s enough, come in now!’ and that would mean we’d have to come in and go to bed. But we gathered under that light and played all the time. Night games.”
Mildred did not let the pain get in the way of her dancing either. She was accomplished and had engaged in it for “all my life,” she said. She started dancing at home, around the time her father passed away. Mildred was only eleven years old. “My dad was sick but we didn’t know it,” she said. “He never complained. He had stomach cancer. Eventually he died.”
In the depths of the Great Depression, Mildred graduated from Spanish Fork High School. “That’s when my mom gave me the choice: She said, ‘You can either go to BYU or you can go to dancing school.” Her mom would help her achieve her dancing aspirations.
Humming tunes that accompanied her dancing, Mildred shuffled her feet from her chair at Parkway Health Center and continued with her story.
“I went to Los Angeles to study dance,” she explained. “It was just me and my mom. After we got there, and I registered at Dave King Studio, he accepted me as a student. And I broke out with a rash- all over.” The rash turned out to be a case of measles. “I couldn’t go anywhere until it was gone.”
Once the virus passed, her lessons resumed, and it was not long before the student from Utah was teaching in LA. “I got to teach two private lessons,” she said, noting that tap was the order of the day. “That’s all they wanted- tap dancing.”
She taught to two young men, David, a native of the Philippines, and Denny. “Then the war broke out in the Philippines,” she said. “That was it. That’s when David went home and I’ve not heard a word from him since.” Denny would depart for work “in the oil fields,” Mildred said, and the lessons would end.
“It was quite an interesting time,” she said, recalling the days she and her mom took turns behind the wheel of their car, driving back and forth from Spanish Fork, Utah, to Los Angeles, California, for Mildred’s dance studies. “I’d get tired of driving, so then momma would drive. And I woke up one time to see momma headed right for a white picket fence, and I looked at her and her eyes were wide open, and she was asleep!” Mildred took over the driving after that.
“We would pull over by the side of the road, and go to sleep,” she said. “Sleep all night. Then we read in the paper how a young mother and daughter from Ohio had been killed--robbed and then killed--on this road that we had been on, so we didn’t do that anymore.”
While in LA Mildred was offered the chance to join a touring dance performance group slated to “go up the coast, then over to Nova Scotia,” she said. When she and her mom asked the directors how they might return, “They said, ‘That’s your problem.’ So we didn’t get involved.”
They did, however, attend the troupe’s performance in Los Angeles before they made their way to eastern Canada. “We went to the Million Dollar Theater to see the show that I would have been in. Oh, and they came out on the stage in the most beautiful outfits! Completely covered. Momma nudged me and said, ‘Look what you’re missing,’ and I nudged back and said, ‘I didn’t want to do it anyway.’ Then they took the cape off! They had on a little bra and little britches, and that was all. And I was thankful.”
When Mildred and her mom left LA for good, the dancer put her expertise to work in central Utah, teaching lessons in Spanish Fork, Springville, Payson, Santaquin, and Eureka. First National Bank in Spanish Fork had a space available for her to use on the upper floor. “It was kind of like a little dance hall,” Mildred said. Her lessons in Eureka were some of her favorites, but they ended after a major mine closure caused a substantial number of the town’s residents to leave in search of employment elsewhere, taking her dance students with them.
It was after a day working in Payson that she met her husband, the late Garth Ernest Olson. “I met Garth at the grocery store in Payson,” she said. “We decided to get our groceries before we went home. So we went into Roy’s Market, got our groceries, and then took them out to the car. He was working in there and I don’t know when he first asked me for a date. It just sort of all fell together. The next thing you knew, I was Mrs. Garth Olson! After a year.”
Garth was a graduate of Mildred’s alma mater's rival, Payson High School. “I didn’t know he was saying what I was, but I was saying, ‘I would never go out with a boy from Payson. Never!’ He would say, ‘I would never go out with a girl from Spanish Fork!’ I don’t know why we felt that way, I don’t know who started it, but I wasn’t going to marry anyone from Payson. And I guess I kind of forgot he was from Payson. And he must have forgot I was from Spanish Fork. We just got married.”
Mildred and Garth were married in the Manti LDS Temple. They rented houses in Utah County before moving into the central Payson home they had constructed for them in 1940. “We moved in in 1941,” she said. “February was when I think we moved in.” They raised their three sons, Ernest, Brent, and Kevin Olson here. Garth was employed as Principal for the former Peteetneet Elementary School, which was later restored into the modernday Peteetneet Museum and Cultural Arts Center. Their children attended Taylor School, not far from their home.
Dancing remained a part of Mildred’s life. She led dance workshops for children attending Peteetneet School. “I loved it,” she said. “I always loved working with children.”
Mildred stepped up to help older children when she and Bob Carter of the Payson Police Department established the Payson City Youth Court. “Bob and I went over and talked to Judge Merrill Hermansen,” she recalled. Judge Hermansen served as Utah Juvenile Court Judge in Provo until 1992. “A wise, well-tempered gentleman, and he told us, ‘One of the things I want you to know, never take money. Don’t ever, ever handle money,” sage advice they followed.
“We had a good group in the court,” Mildred said of the students with whom she and Lieutenant Carter worked. Members were first nominated, then vetted. “We would call them in and interview them after we had asked their parents if they were willing to let their young man or young woman be in the Youth Court,” Mildred explained.
As for the young offenders, “We wanted to keep them out of Juvenile Court,” she said. “But there’s one other thing: We wanted to break the habit--say, like, they were stealing all the time--and if we could help break that habit, then we felt an accomplishment. But when they were given work sentences, they were told ‘why you have to do this,’ and we hoped they’d never have to do it again. We tried to encourage them and we asked the Youth Court members to put their arms around that kid’s shoulder and tell him, ‘we hope you are having a good year’.”
The Payson Youth Court program well on its way in the early 1990s, Mildred picked up her No.10 pencil and legal note pad and began to write the weekly Payson Police Report. Her submissions kept readers informed and connected them with the work handled by Payson Police. After meticulously transcribing the events, Mildred would deliver the pages to the newspaper office, and from there they were added to the printed page.
At night she would take part in discussions guiding the city’s course. She was a regular fixture at the bi-weekly Payson City Council meetings held in the Council Chambers on West Utah Avenue. From a chair in the audience, Citizen Olson used her pencil and pad to record, by hand, the discourse of the day. “I was really interested in what was going on in our city,” she said of her involvement over the years. “Some of the changes were good and some of them were bad.”
As with the Police Report, her notes were meticulous in thought and detail, and written in an elegant cursive style. “You know, I’ve got about six notebooks full of notes about that thick,” she said, her hands visually defining the depth.
Having been born in December of 1917, Mildred will soon join the centenarian club, and is certain to be among its sharpest and wittiest members. When asked about the changes that have transpired over her nearly one hundred years, she remarked, “I don’t understand the computer.” Her son, she said, has tried to convince her that she should give it a try.
Yet, while technology has its advantages, how could it replicate Mildred Olson’s elegant penmanship on paper, her No.10 pencil held at the tip of a nimble mind and witty tongue? How can it replace her dancing?