In Memoriam: Dr. Al Olmstead

Jan 17 2013

Selected Thoughts in Memory of Dr. Al Olmstead

Dr. James Frideres and Dr. Merlin Brinkerhoff, University of Calgary

Al was born and raised on a farm in Southern Saskatchewan where he attended a rural school. Upon completion of grade 12, he enrolled at the University of Saskatchewan where he received both his Bachelor and Master of Arts in Sociology. His Masters was done under the supervision of the well-known rural sociologist, Dr. Richard Duwors.   While attending the University of Saskatchewan, Al met and married Noreen, a trained nurse. They had two sons.

Al was accepted for doctoral studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. While there, he served as a Teaching Assistant in several classes. He gained recognition for his work in the classroom; being honoured with the designation of Distinction. While at the University of Washington, Al also found himself involved with The Population Laboratory where he participated in several census projects at the municipal, county and state levels. Again, he was well respected for his work and he became a supervisor of the Lab.

Al studied under the mentorship of several very well-known and respected sociologists at the University of Washington.   Among them were Drs. Otto Larsen, William Catton, Tom Barth and Frank Miyamoto. Al concentrated his scholarly work on areas such as Mass Communications, Collective Behaviour, Race Relations and Community. His doctoral dissertation was completed under the supervision of Professor Larsen.

In 1967, Al attended the American Sociological Association Annual Meetings in San Francisco where fortuitously he learned that the University of Calgary was interviewing applicants for open positions. He interviewed with Dr. Richard Ossenberg, Acting Head of Department of Sociology and Anthropology, at that time. Al was offered a position, and joined the Department at the University of Calgary in July 1968. By that time, Al’s mentor from the University of Saskatchewan, Dr. Richard Duwors, had been appointed Head of Department at the University of Calgary.  

Al taught a wide offering of undergraduate courses ranging from Introductory, Social Psychology, Collective Behaviour, Mass Communications and Community among others. Over the years, Al proved to be an excellent teacher who was appreciated by many of his students. One of Al’s classroom characteristics, for which he became well known, was his frequent use of examples taken from his life as a farm boy in Saskatchewan and his lectures were replete with Saskatchewan stories.   Al’s message to his students, passed on in a variety of guises, was that they should never doubt for a minute that they could do whatever they wanted. All they had to do was to believe in themselves.

During his career in the Department, Al became part of a team of sociologists who were among the pioneers in the investigation of environmental sociology. He and his colleagues were very much involved in “environmental and social impact analysis” based on their backgrounds in community sociology. Their work paved the way for the introduction of new legislation in Alberta focusing on the need for “environmental/social impact assessments” that are now so common. This endeavour and expertise preceded today’s penchant for environmental impact studies required by many engaged in project development, i.e., Al and his colleagues were true pioneers. Their applied sociology led them to building important, lasting relationships with companies in the private sector as well as with Government agencies. One of Al’s major contributions to his chosen field was that of applying his knowledge to real problems and as a result, a significant portion of his research resulted in “consulting reports” to Government and the private sector. Al was well known for his expertise in providing insights about the nature and complexity of communities while at the same time carry out excellent field work.

Among his colleagues at the University, Al served as the central figure in “the hot stove league” where people found themselves gathered in his office discussing hockey, football, hunting, fishing and politics. Al was a fountain of information. Al was constantly engaged in the reading of novels and was extremely well-read in contemporary literature. He also was an avid collector of guns and published several papers on the sociological aspects of “collectors” and the implications of those activities. Al also enjoyed hunting game birds in Alberta as well as returning to rural Saskatchewan in pursuit of whitetail deer. In the summers, one would find Al fishing streams and the occasional lake with some of his colleagues.

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