History comes full circle at Island County museum
— Created August 9, 2023 by Kathy Reed
By Kathy Reed
If one was to ask Vern Olsen, a well-known Whidbey Island resident (music teacher, founding member of the Shifty Sailors), what his most important accomplishment has been, he’d be the first to say, “My family.”
He and his wife, Martha, have lived on Whidbey for 50 years and raised their two children here. Their eldest, daughter Adora Olsen Hoose, just celebrated her 50th birthday, and it’s fair to say her gift was pretty “historic.”
The Olsens, both of whom volunteer at the Island County Historical Museum in Coupeville, arranged for Hoose to be the museum’s admission sponsor for the month of August, and surprised her with the news at a visit to the museum last weekend. (The program allows visitors to the museum to tour the facility without paying an admission fee. All visitors are welcome to make an additional donation if they choose.)
But there’s a whole other layer to this story, and there is, appropriately enough, some history behind the gift.
As it turns out, Vern Olsen was something of a trailblazer 50 years ago. According to an April 5, 1974, article from the Seattle Times, Olsen was the first man in the Seattle School District to be granted paternity leave, but it was a battle to get it.
In the early 70s, Olsen was teaching at Kimball Elementary School. He said the school received a federal grant that allowed faculty to involve the community in what was taught at the school and how.
“Parents were really, really involved,” he described. “We would have meetings with parents all the time, many times we went to the home for conferences. Parents were involved in what curriculum was taught. Parenting was something that was important because of the federal program, how it was important for both the mother and father to be involved. I wanted to have leave to be with my daughter.”
According to the Seattle Times’ article, when Olsen first applied for leave before his daughter was born, he was told he’d have to resign if he wanted to take a year off.
“There was a clause in the new teachers’ contract that referred to ‘child-caring leave.’ It didn’t say a woman had to do it,” Olsen said. “That’s the argument I gave to the school district. They came back with, ‘We require that a mother, after giving birth, has to have a medical exam to show she’s ready to come back, and you don’t need that.”
Olsen filed a grievance and sexual discrimination charges against the district. He won the grievance and was granted leave six months after his daughter’s birth. By that time, the couple had purchased property near Greenbank and they were working to fix up their log home.
“We had a lot of work to do, especially electricity and plumbing,” he said, admitting his request wasn’t just about equal treatment for men and women, even though he believed strongly in those issues. “It was a way for me to be at home with our child and also work on the house. It was a great year.
“It impacted our whole family process,” Olsen continued. “We spent time together taking care of animals, teaching the kids food doesn’t just come in bags from the store. We also did the same for my son, who we adopted. I didn’t get to take a year off, but the Coupeville School District was starting an elementary music program and couldn’t afford a full-time teacher, so that meant I could be at home half the time. So with both kids, I was able to be at home more than I thought I could be.”
Hoose said she wholeheartedly agrees her dad did the right thing 50 years ago.
“I am so happy he was able to do that,” she said. “I think it’s so important. My husband didn’t’ get to do that as much. It would have been wonderful if he had been able to be home more. My dad got to be there and I sat on his knee all the time when I was really little and we did all kinds of things together that we never would have gotten to do if he’d been working at that point.”
While Olsen doesn’t think of himself as a trailblazer, he said he’s often curious about how many men do take advantage of paternity leave. There is no federal paid leave program in place today, but Washington State did pass a family leave measure in 2017 that allows parents – men or women – to take time off for the arrival of a new child.
Mostly, though, Olsen recognizes the synergy in the history of his family’s experience.
“Martha and I both feel good about our decisions back then,” he said. “This is our golden wedding anniversary, this golden time. I haven’t thought about it very often, but when all of a sudden Adorda’s 50, that’s pretty special. To know something special happened back then, we should celebrate that.”
A history buff, Hoose truly appreciates her parents’ gift. She went to national competition for Coupeville High School’s History Day, and went on to study history in college. Now she works at a university in California. She, too, feels the synergy.
“I think the history lesson is that ‘You can do it,’” she said. “It is possible. Change is possible. Looking back 50 years we can say, ‘Hey, here’s what happened then. Let’s push that to what can happen now.’ It can change the way people think. It can change what people do. It allowed teachers in public schools to say, ‘I want to take leave for my kid,’ and they could. That’s a big change. I always have pride in telling people, ‘My dad was one of the first.’”
The Island County Historical Museum is located at 908 NW Alexander Street in Coupeville. Learn more at islandhistory.org.