100-year-old honorary alumnus, Irving J. Olson, establishes second scholarship at UA


Although his time as a student on The University of Akron campus was decades ago – and fleeting – Dr. Irving J. Olson continues to believe in the value of higher education. In fact, the Arizona resident who was born in Akron, Ohio, recently created a second scholarship for students enrolled in UA’s Mary Schiller Myers School of Art.

Ten decades in the making: Dr. Irving J. Olson wears a cap and gown on the occasion of his 100th birthday after receiving UA's highest award, an Honorary Doctorate of Human Letters. Over the years, he and his late wife, Ruth, generously established two scholarships for students enrolled in UA's School of Art.

The Dr. Irving J. Olson and Ruth B. Photography Scholarship for the School of Art, established in January 2014, celebrates the passion for photography Olson shared with his late wife, Ruth, and acknowledges The University of Akron for bestowing upon him its highest honor, an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters. Olson received the Honorary Doctorate – which recognizes his sterling career and noteworthy life achievements – on the occasion of his 100th birthday in November 2013.

A student during the Great Depression, Olson studied engineering and business at The University of Akron in the early 1930s, albeit briefly. Early in his academic career, he was informed by the College of Engineering’s dean that he was not making the grade, and his major was changed – without his knowledge or consent – to accounting. Less than a semester later, it was clear to Olson that accounting was not to his liking either, so he did what any other rising-star entrepreneur might do: he dumped his papers and books on the engineering dean’s desk and left the University to focus on his own already burgeoning business.

Olson’s decision to leave the University ultimately brought him extraordinary success – in business, in the arts, and in life. Upon his departure from the University, he opened a radio repair shop in the back of his father’s Akron, Ohio, barber shop and enlisted his brothers, Sidney and Philip, to join him. Under Olson’s prudent leadership, the business expanded into Olson Radio Warehouse, which became Olson Electronics, a mail-order business that grew to nearly 100 stores nationwide.

In 1963, at the half-century mark of his life, Olson officially retired after selling his thriving business to Teledyne Industries. Only 50 years old at the time, he then began pursuing his many interests, including his long-standing passion for photography.

Together with his beloved wife of more than 71 years, Olson traveled to more than 125 countries in pursuit of captivating images and became an award-winning photographer. Today, his work is on display in his hometown of Akron at The University of Akron’s E.J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall and Summa Health System’s Akron City Hospital; in Tucson Ariz., at the Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra and the Jewish Federation Northwest office; nationally at the Smithsonian and the Hearst Foundation; and in private collections worldwide.

In recent years, Olson’s photography has taken a decidedly scientific turn with the creation of ‘water-drop’ photographs – images that capture the exact moment when two or three water droplets collide. By adding color to the water, Olson creates vivid, abstract images, some of which can be found in the Olson Research Laboratory on The University of Akron campus.

Extending the Olson Legacy

Much like his first scholarship at UA ensured deserving students in the School of Art of an opportunity to achieve their dreams, Olson’s second scholarship once again provides financial assistance to art students – and challenges them not only to follow their dreams, but to make a difference in the world through art and service to the community, so that they, as he says, “shall not have lived in vain.”

The purpose of The Dr. Irving J. Olson and Ruth B. Photography Scholarship is to provide an academic scholarship to one or two photography students to help defray tuition and fees, with consideration to applicants who are actively involved in University life, the School of Art, and the community; have potential for future success; and are working to help pay for their UA education.

The Ruth and Irving Olson Art Student Reward Fund, established in 2000, assists deserving UA students in the School of Art who are studying graphic design and digital imaging.