Jan. 27, 2023
R. Casey Olson ’71, a retired oil executive, remains engaged with Culver Academies more than five decades after graduating because of the important role the school played in his life.
“I view Culver as having a really significant positive impact in my life, and on my success in my career,” said Olson, who served as a corporate executive vice president of Occidental Petroleum Corp. and president of OXY Oil and Gas—International. “The leadership qualities that were developed here, the maturity that I developed here, and the education prepared me so well for my future years in business that it remains one of the most influential periods of time in my life.”
Olson, who has served on the Culver Education Foundation Board of Trustees, believes Culver offers advantages that distinguish it from other highly rated boarding schools.
“It is unique at a secondary level, in my view, as to the diversity of its student body, the diversity of the academic programs, the athletic programs, and just overall life experience,” he said. “The fact that the core element, in my view, for Culver is its leadership program. It is so unique to have an entire educational experience of this quality that also is built upon a fundamental goal of developing leadership.”
Students at Culver study principles of self-awareness, collaboration and leadership for change and are challenged to understand the power of building teams to accomplish goals and reflect on their roles as members and leaders within those teams.
Another reason Olson supports Culver is a way to give back. He said his family couldn’t afford to send him to Culver, but that his mother had a “serendipitous” encounter with a Culver graduate who told her about the school and told her the school had scholarships available. Olson went to Culver and took a test, interviewed with school leaders, and was offered a full scholarship.
“Because of that, I made a fundamental commitment that should I ever be in a position to provide that same kind of opportunity for someone else, I was certainly going to make that a high priority,” he said.
Olson is fulfilling that pledge. He and his wife, Margaret, have endowed scholarships for international girls attending Culver and helped fund other scholarships.
“We’ve had some really incredible students come through as a result of that,” Casey Olson said.
The Olsons also have sponsored the Mountainfilm on Tour documentary film festival on campus the past three years. They also are sponsoring a trip so all 13 members of Dancevision, Culver’s dance company, can travel to Atlanta for a three-day workshop in ballet, jazz and contemporary dance at the Namari Dance Center. Dana Crigler ’93, Namari’s co-founder and a Dancevision alumna, and her colleagues have taken part in programs at Culver the past two years, in person last year and virtually in 2021.
Emily Fought, a dance instructor at Culver, said arranging the Atlanta trip has been a priority for her and fellow dance instructor Ingrid Ciaccia.
“We want our dancers to have the opportunity to train with artists and choreographers who teach different dance styles and techniques,” Fought said. “We are really excited to experience Atlanta and the Namari Dance Center with our dancers.”
Olson has long had an interest in theatre. As a first classman at Culver, he played an arsonist in the school play ‘The Firebugs.” But he said his decision to support Dancevision comes from a friendship he developed with Cathy (Mitzell) Duke ’70.
Olson graduated from Culver Military Academy in the spring before Culver Girls Academy opened. Back then, daughters of faculty were allowed to attend CMA. Duke’s father, Chan, taught history and later became Culver’s director of development, and her mother, Dorry, was a Culver librarian.
Duke, who founded Dancevision in 1977, had a long career at Culver, as a master instructor in dance and as the John and Virginia Bays Chair of Fine Arts. That’s why the Olsons support Dancevision.
“It's looking back at that friendship with her and her family and what it meant to me. It was an immediate way for me to give back to the program that I think is wonderful for the school but also connect to someone that I have such a long relationship with,” he said.
Olson was on campus last week to attend the Mountainfilm screenings for all Culver students. The students watched seven documentaries that celebrate adventure, activism, social justice, environment, and indomitable spirit. Olson, a supporter of the Mountainfilm festival held every Memorial Day weekend in Telluride, Colorado, helped bring some of the documentaries from the festival to Culver for a third year.
The previous two film festivals were held virtually because of COVID. Olson said it was gratifying to be able to sit in the Eppley Auditorium theater and watch the documentary short films with students.
“It's really fulfilling for me to see the reaction from the students,” he said. “Culver just seems like an optimum location to me because of the intellectual capabilities of the student body to appreciate and gain insights into important issues through these films.”
Crystal Merrill, Mountainfilm festival producer, said the goal of the festival, which started in 1979, is to use the power of film, art, and ideas to inspire audiences to create a better world.
“We hope that everyone who watches a Mountainfilm program comes away with some sort of spark of inspiration to do something, whether it be volunteer on a certain effort or subject that was featured in a film or just give back in some way,” she said.
This year, Danny Schmidt, director of “Janwaar,” a documentary about a group of kids whose lives are transformed when a skatepark is built in their small village in India, held a virtual question-and-answer session with Culver students to discuss the film.
Olson hopes the film festival at Culver will eventually expand to a multi-day event where more people involved in filmmaking will come to campus and work with faculty members whose courses are related to films or storytelling and to interact with students.
Adam Joyce, director of theatre at Culver and a senior instructor, said he was grateful that the entire study body was able to watch the documentaries.
“The theme of the festival is ‘indomitable spirit.’ So all of the films in one way, shape or form represent many of the virtues that we espouse or that we elevate here at Culver,” he said.
He said Mountainfilm curated the best films for Culver students that he wouldn’t have had time to compile. He said people at Mountainfilm selected some films after talking to Culver leaders about the school’s virtues, and then Joyce and others at Culver made the final selections.
“I don't think that it's logical to assume that we could do this sort of on our own and have the breadth and diversity of films that we're able to offer the students without our connection to Mountainfilm, and that’s Casey,” he said.
Culver students are planning their own film festival next month. Although none of those films are documentaries, Joyce said being able to watch the documentaries and talk with Schmidt were valuable experiences. He’s looking forward to seeing the films the students create.
“It's fun. It's scary. Because it's all their first films,” Joyce said. “But it'll be exciting and I'm proud of the work that the kids have been doing.”
Olson said he hopes the documentaries will let the students see all the possibilities open to them.
“It’s important for the students to understand there are festivals like this, that there are opportunities for them to develop films, there are opportunities for them to seek support of their filming activities,” he said. “I think it’s great for them to see that if you really keep working at this, this is something you can actually do as a career.”