WSUV facilities worker quietly donates his own time to maintain nearby trails

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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It’s Terrance Olson’s day off, but you’d never know it by looking at him.

Olson, a facilities crew member at Washington State University Vancouver, is decked out from head to toe in denim work clothes. He’s wearing gloves, boots and a faded baseball cap. One hand holds a set of plant clippers. The other holds a bag of supplies, slung over one shoulder on his small, 62-year-old frame.

Olson walks near the bank of Mill Creek, describing what used to be a jungle of invasive blackberry bushes before workers cleared them out by hand as part of ongoing habitat restoration along the Salmon Creek tributary.

A wayward blackberry stem catches Olson’s eye. He can’t help himself. He bends down and clips it at the ground.

“When I first started here, they said I had a vendetta against blackberries,” Olson said. “And thistles.”

Olson is a part-time member of the WSU facilities crew that keeps the campus looking clean while maintaining nearby habitat and natural areas. He’s not the most vocal presence, but Olson brings an unmatched work ethic that speaks for itself, said John Benson, the campus grounds manager and Olson’s supervisor.

“Right off the bat, he was impressive with his work,” Benson said. “He asked immediately if he could do some volunteer work. I’ve never been approached by an employee about that.”

Olson said he puts in about 40 to 50 hours of extra work on his own time each year. Benson figures it’s more than that.

Benson recalls one day, not long after Olson started, when particularly hot weather pushed temperatures into uncomfortable territory. Benson sent his crew home for the day.

Olson was in the middle of weed-whacking a slope on campus, but obliged. Then he found a bus back to campus.

“He brought his own weed-whacker back on the bus,” Benson said. “Even though I had sent everybody home, he was fit and determined to get that done.”

Olson has worked with the WSU facilities crew for about seven years. He works both on the main Vancouver campus and the Mill Creek area near a storage barn on what used to be farmland east of campus.

There, Olson keeps troublesome plants at bay and aims for a park feel for the runners and walkers who use trails, he said. James Martin, WSU Vancouver’s facilities operations director, called Olson the crew’s “secret weapon.”

Olson spent much of his professional life as a tree planter, traveling the western United States for about 15 years. He’s no stranger to the outdoors — just the way he likes it.

“I’m a farm boy from North Dakota,” said Olson, who now lives a short drive from the WSU Vancouver campus. “Being outside, you can’t take it away.”

A 1993 accident almost did. That’s when Olson, working on a roof project in the Duluth area near Battle Ground, slipped and fell 16 feet to the ground, he said. The fall fractured his pelvis and a couple of vertebrae, and broke other bones in his lower left leg and ankle.

The accident put Olson out of work for almost three years, he said. But he wasn’t interested in staying immobile the rest of his life. Olson got back on his feet, and today makes sure to stay active at work, gardening and hiking.

“I’ve got to keep the muscles in my back going,” he said.

And if Olson didn’t stay active?

“I might as well order a grave site,” he said.

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541 or eric.florip@columbian.com.