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Gene Olson shows 'You can come home again'

When he left Augustana College in 1983 armed with a degree in political science and a minor in Spanish he really didn't want a career in politics or Spanish. But he didn't know what he was going to do, either.

It wasn't long, though, before the Peoria native found himself on a career path pursuing his greatest love, aviation. And now, at age 50, he is in what he calls his dream job — managing a midsized airport in a city he loves.

"With all I have in life, between my family and my career, I consider myself a very lucky man. This is where I want to be and where I want to stay," said Olson, who became director of the Wayne R. Downing Peoria

International Airport in June 2009. He replaced Ken Spirito, who left Peoria after three years to take a similar job at a larger airport.

"That's one of the things the Airport Authority pushed me on during my interview for this job: Would I simply be using the job as a stepping stone to a bigger airport. I told them no, which is the truth. I don't want to be on a career path to be the director of the airport in Indianapolis or anyplace else. I would like to stay here as long as the job stays challenging and the board wants me," Olson said recently.

"If that's the rest of my career, that would be fine with me. I'm back where I grew up, where my parents and other family still live, and doing a job I love. I consider this my dream job," he said.

"This has been a very good move for me, for the family. The job has been wonderful, it has been fun reconnecting with people I've known most of my life, and it's just a lot of fun being able to do something that helps your hometown," he said.

Among those he has reconnected with was Col. William P. Robertson, commander of the 182nd Airlift Wing based at the Peoria airport. "We went to high school together and knew each other, but neither of us knew the other was interested in aviation until we reconnected recently," he said.

The tall, slender Olson is a pleasant conversationalist and it doesn't take long to realize he is expert in his field. But it's not only because it is his job to be knowledgeable about aviation; it's also because aviation is his passion.

"It has been my passion since I was a kid," Olson said. His father Mel Olson, a retired Caterpillar Inc. engineer, flew Piper Cubs when he lived in Holland and had his own interest in flying. For that reason he often took Gene and his siblings to the Peoria airport on Sundays. They would have breakfast, then watch planes come and go from the observation deck connected to the old terminal.

Although his father didn't fly planes after returning to the United States, the Olson children did get to actually fly. "Dad would take us to the old Waddell Airport (now Manito Mitchell Airport) where they would have fly-ins and drive-ins, like an open house. They used to give airplane rides for 50 cents a head and a penny a pound. It was around $5.25 for three of us. Then we'd go over to one of the hangars and eat free watermelon. Back then I wasn't sure which I liked better.

"You do that kind of thing very often and aviation gets under the skin," he said. "That was the spark that lit the fire for me."

An alumnus of Peoria High School who lettered on the swim team, Olson had his first flying lesson while still in high school. His parents didn't know he was going to do it, however. He'd saved his money to pay for the lesson and told them about it after the fact, sitting at the dinner table that same evening.

He didn't fly again for a while, but eventually obtained his pilot's license in 1987. He thought at one point of being a flight instructor himself, but by the time he graduated high school he decided on a more practical route to a career; hence his enrolling at Augustana majoring in something other than aviation.

After college he was looking for work when it was suggested he try and do something at an airport. He got close; he went to work for a St. Louis company as an airport planner.
He later moved to Indianapolis in a similar position and became a consultant for an engineering firm there. He also worked at the airport in Terre Haute, Ind.

In Indianapolis he met his wife Andrea, who was a police officer. They were married and a couple of sons later, Olson was offered the position as assistant director of Evansville Regional Airport, a midsized airport in Evansville, Ind., a city similar in size to Peoria. That was in 2000.

"It was a good job, a good move for us. My wife became a law enforcement liaison for an agency and it was good situation. That's why I stayed there for several years," he said.

Then came the opportunity to apply for the Peoria airport job — twice, in fact. Olson interviewed for the position three years earlier when it ultimately went to Spirito.

While the Peoria airport is slightly larger than the one in Evansville, Olson said there are many similarities because of the size. "I like this size of airport. It is a challenge, but it's not so big I can't get in there myself and run it instead of just managing a staff," he said.

A month or two after he started at Downing Airport, construction began on the new terminal. But his airport planning experience didn't come into play because all of that was done before his arrival.

Olson likes how it was planned. "It's a good terminal. It's a good fit for Peoria and for the airlines that fly in and out of here and their passengers," he said.

But Olson missed the inaugural flight into the new terminal when it opened last April. He was busy carrying boxes from the old terminal to the new one when that flight landed and its passengers disembarked.

He has, however, seen the faces of others as they entered the airport for the first time, especially if they were familiar with the old terminal. "It was enjoyable. It still is. I remember one guy coming into the terminal after his flight landed, looking around and going up to an airline employee and saying, 'this is Peoria, right?' It is quite a change," Olson said.

Olson doesn't fly much himself anymore. More than anything it's because of a lack of time.

Another factor could be that it isn't necessary any longer if he wants to see his folks.

"I used to come back to Peoria every year around Labor Day to pick my dad up and fly over to the National Stearman Fly-in at Galesburg. I think he liked doing that a lot. We still go over there, but by car now since I haven't flown in a while," Olson said.

He said he still remembers the first time he took his father up in a plane and how enthusiastic his father was about it. "I still haven't flown with my mom though. She tolerates airplanes as a way to get somewhere, but I think she believes that we folks who fly in small airplanes for fun are crazy."

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