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Pamela Phillips Olson

Pamela Phillips Olson's profiles for the Madison Jewish News are being gathered for an exhibit titled "The Life Memories Project."

Storytellers may not be born, but it can start pretty early.

Imagine a young girl, decades ago, in the backyard of a home on Staten Island, in New York City. She is drawing pictures with crayons, but listening, too. The adults are telling stories — English mixes with Yiddish — and fanning themselves in the heat. Depending on the tale, there is laughter, or outrage, but always, the power of the story. The girl keeps listening.

Pamela Phillips Olson — the girl with the crayons — is today a psychotherapist in private practice in Madison. Listening is part of her livelihood.

A few years ago, Olson — who volunteers at Lechayim, a weekly lunch program of Jewish Social Services in Madison — decided to utilize her listening skills to help preserve the stories of the people who attend the Lechayim lunches. To do it, Olson had to become a writer, a storyteller herself. She did it well enough that her Lechayim profiles are published each month in the Madison Jewish News, in a column called “Spotlight.”

Now those columns — some 35 in all — will be displayed, accompanied by photos, in an exhibit titled “The Life Memories Project,” from 11 a.m. to noon on Oct. 27, in advance of the Lechayim lunch at Temple Beth El. It is open to the public, and Olson will speak.

Olson often does her interviews right at the Lechayim lunches.

“It’s generous of them to share their stories,” she said. “I’m honored to hear them.”

What might be most interesting, perusing the pieces, is the variety of experiences of the subjects.

Olson began her June 2013 column with this:

“When Nelson Mandela was sentenced to prison in 1965, 15-year-old Hilary Blue was on the front lines demonstrating against apartheid in her homeland of South Africa.”

According to Olson’s profile, Blue moved to Madison, with her partner, four years ago. Her memories of South Africa remain vivid: learning piano from her dad, and playing Beethoven at 5; being pelted with eggs by police while demonstrating in advance of a speech by Robert Kennedy; and traveling to London to visit an aunt, an anti-apartheid activist, and finding her aunt’s telephone tapped.

“Six thousand miles away from South Africa,” Blue told Olson, “the security police were still checking up on her!”

Then there’s Charlie Meyer, a retired Madison psychiatrist, originally from Philadelphia, who recalled volunteering for civil rights causes in the South prior to starting medical school. In 1966, James Meredith led the March Against Fear from Tennessee to Mississippi. Early on, Meredith was shot.

“While Meredith was hospitalized,” Olson wrote, in her column on Meyer, this past March, “Charlie and others continued the march. When they stopped in a field to rest, they were tear-gassed and beaten.”

Meyer described the experience: “The police hit me with the butt of a rifle and kicked with steel-toed boots. I returned home for several days to recuperate.” He returned, to Alabama, and helped inoculate children against polio and other diseases.

Olson marched for civil rights and peace herself. She grew up in that house on Staten Island before attending Hunter College and Yeshiva University’s School of Social Work. Olson came to Madison in the late 1980s with her husband, Steven Olson, who had attended UW-Madison. Steven, prior to retirement, worked as an English teacher at West High School. Their three adult children are far-flung, currently living in Hong Kong, Brazil and New York City.

In October 2013, Olson wrote about Nena Dyhr, who worked for Group Health Cooperative of South Central Wisconsin for 25 years, and was there, as Olson wrote, “when the first mammography machine arrived.”

Olson continued: “A volunteer was needed to get the first image. Nena’s hand shot up higher and faster than the others.”

Dyhr had the exam. “Early the next day she was called into her doctor’s office,” Olson wrote. “It is not an exaggeration to say volunteering saved her life. Immediately she had her first surgery. After a second breast surgery and two lung surgeries, she still has the stamina to help others. Her gratitude for being in good health drives her.”

Some of the people profiled in the Oct. 27 exhibit have familiar names: Helen Vukelich, the longtime Madison social justice advocate, whose late husband, George, was a beloved Madison writer; and Alice Loew, whose daughter, Patty, is a well-known journalist and filmmaker.

It was not a name, but a face, that grabbed me when I was perusing Olson’s exhibit material. “I know that woman,” I thought to myself, on seeing a photo. “That’s Ginny.”

My friend Ginny — I didn’t know her last name — is a member at Supreme Health and Fitness on Odana Road, Madison’s least pretentious health club. Everyone knows and likes her. I read Olson’s column on Ginny — Ginny Graff, I know now, from Green Bay — published in August 2013, and I wasn’t surprised to learn she has volunteered at Temple Beth El’s Food-a-Rama for 28 years.

I was surprised to learn she once worked for the FBI. If you want the rest of that story, check out the exhibit. Ginny, you’ve been holding out on us.

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Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or dmoe@madison.com. His column appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

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