Indirect Endowment

[I write this not to gain credit or accolades, but as an attempt to inspire others who may have been blessed by similar good fortune or have been more successful than expected in saving for their futures to consider what to do with their “excess”.] 

My dad once told me that he was planning to “spend his children’s inheritance”.  It was his lighthearted way of saying that he was not going to restrict his spending during retirement.  He intended to pursue his passions for inventive projects and for philanthropic activity, especially for educational causes.  And that his children should continue saving for their own financial security.  None of us expected any different.

Well, he failed.  Despite his efforts to create the ultimate ham radio station, and to support his grandchildren through college, he left a surplus.  Not a Warren Buffet or Bill Gates level of wealth, but certainly more than we expected from a man who worked for a salary and who, while we were growing up, paid the mortgage by keeping our daily expenses to a minimum.

So having followed my father’s advice to save for the future, and expecting him to have fully enjoyed and spent down his own savings during retirement, I was surprised by the “excess” he left behind.  My share of the inheritance was a windfall to me.  What should I do with it?

I contemplated this for a while.  I could simply add it to my own savings, providing further assurance against market crashes or long-term illness or disability, but this just seemed excessive to me.  I am comfortable in my recent retirement, so do I really need to see my account balances increase as I age?  As someone who has long argued against endless economic growth as the measure of societal success and who promotes the concept of the “steady state economy”, that just didn’t seem right.

I wondered how best to utilize funds that were completely unanticipated.  I thought back on my college experience, back to when it was possible to “work your way through school”.  Sadly, it is no longer practical to do this.  Our society has changed since those days, and rather than decry the wrongness of the current system, I choose to do what I can to support students who, like me back then, struggle to meet tuition payments.  As a result, I have applied my inheritance and excess savings to establish a scholarship fund at the University of Minnesota. 

This seems like a fitting place for it, a memorial to my father and my grandfather, both highly connected to the University.  Here is the background statement for the endowment:

I have fond memories of being a student at the University of Minnesota, but not because it was easy. I was motivated to learn “the secrets of the universe” in my math and physics classes, but I struggled to pay tuition, rent and expenses. By working over the summer and part-time during the school year, I was able to cover them. It was challenging but possible. Today, with low wages and high costs, “working your way through school” no longer seems feasible.
Therefore, I am offering my own small contribution to enable students with the desire to learn and follow their passions to pursue an education at the University of Minnesota. I regard this as an investment not only in individual students but in the future of our society.
The TAO Scholarship recognizes three Theodore A. Olsons with close relations to the University of Minnesota. Theodore Alexander Olson (“Ted”) was a professor in the School of Public Health from 1938 to 1973; his specialty was the ecology of freshwater lakes. He was an expert in toxic algae blooms and mosquito-borne diseases. His son Theodore A. Olson, Jr. (“Tod”) acquired a degree in Mathematics at the University of Minnesota. After obtaining a master’s degree in Public Health at the University of Michigan he returned to Minnesota and started his career in the research labs of General Mills, pioneering the use of computers in the food industry.
I am Ted’s grandson, Tod’s son, Thor — Theodore A. Olson III, the beneficiary of my parents’ and grandparents’ inspiration and support. The broad range of courses offered at the University spoke to my wide range of interests. In fact, I changed my major from Architecture, to Fine Arts, to Elected Studies, to Physics, to Electrical Engineering. My multi-faceted interests led me to a similarly varied career, starting with designing geophysical instrumentation (seismographs), then to high density disk drives, and high-resolution color displays. I was part of a project that earned an Academy Award for Technical Achievement and have been granted two dozen patents. I ended my career with the title “Color Imaging Scientist”, having contributed to the transition from analog film to digital photography.
It has been a wild ride. I expect the same wild ride of technical innovation to continue, which is why I am enthusiastic about endowing a scholarship that will help students prepare for it!

I look forward to seeing the advances in technology made by students of the University of Minnesota’s College of Science and Engineering, some of whom will be there because this scholarship made it possible.  And I think my father and grandfather would be pleased as well!

Thor Olson
August 2021

With Dean of the College of Science and Engineering Mos Kaveh (center), and Assistant Dean for External Relations Kim Dockter, who helped me create the TAO Scholarship Fund.  Dean Kaveh had been one of my electrical engineering professors who taught me the skills that contributed to my successful and varied career.

6 thoughts on “Indirect Endowment

  1. This was a great use of the money, Thor! I have also enjoyed the possibilities the windfall offers. One of the things I’ve done is to make an “ angel investment” into a business expansion by an extremely talented young person I have known for a few years.


  2. Thor, your scholarship fund is a wonderful plan to contribute to making our world a more equal and prosperous place. You will also have the joy of knowing that this will have continuing benefit long into the future. We are all ultimately connected and benefit from each other’s success. I will reflect on this concept in future plans.


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