‘He just got things working:’ Buckley firefighter, historian and renaissance man dies at 81

For some, “Uncle Walt” represented a simpler, more cooperative time in history.

Walter Olsen, Buckley’s well-known volunteer firefighter, “renaissance man” and historical society advocate died Aug. 26, 2021 at the age of 81 from leukemia.

Olsen busied himself with countless skills and interests in his 81 years on earth. A woodworker, printmaker, mechanic, fireman, cook, surveyor and Weyerhaeuser engineer, community members remembered Olsen as a quiet and down-to-earth man who knew how to solve a problem and serve his community.

As the Foothills Historical Museum put it in their newsletter, the museum’s motto was “Walter will know.”

After graduating from White River High School in 1958, Olsen married his high school sweetheart Martha Sue Rose. The two celebrated their 60th anniversary this summer.

Martha’s parents began the Foothills Historical Museum in 1981, and she and Olsen were instrumental in the founding and growth of the project, by building, rescuing and maintaining many of the exhibits that are still on display.

Olsen was meticulous and curious about everything, Historical Museum members said. He brought to life exhibits like the museum’s printing press, steam whistle and old phone system, said Nancy Stratton, museum board member and Martha Olsen’s cousin.

“When it came, nobody knew how to use (the printing press),” Stratton said. “Walt, of course, learned how to use it. … He just got things working.”

And he was significantly involved in putting together the museum’s outdoor display across N. River Rd., which includes a steam donkey, bunkhouse and lookout tower, providing residents with a physical reminder of how people in the area lived over a century ago.

At the age of five or six, Buckley’s current fire chief Eric Skogen looked up to Olsen’s and the other firefighting families in town. They’re the ones who sparked his interest in firefighting, he said, and who set the standards that exist to this day at the department.

Olsen volunteered at the Buckley Fire Department for four decades, where he’d affectionally gained the nickname “uncle Walter,” Skogen said. Walter was always willing to mentor younger firefighters, Skogen said: “It was just in his blood.”

“You don’t see that level of commitment anymore, unfortunately, where somebody really dedicates the majority of their adult life to taking care of others,” Skogen said. “His spirit of volunteerism … (meant) generations to come can understand what Buckley was founded on, what it was all about.”

“We need more people to be like Walt,” Skogen continued. “Don’t hoard what you know. Be willing to share your knowledge, your love and passion for community. Don’t just pass through life.”

Former Buckley Fire Department Chief Allen Predmore, who led the department from 1997 through 2020, got to know Olsen around 1984 when Predmore was working with the police department. Soon after Predmore became chief, Olsen expressed a readiness to retire from the department, Predmore recalled. But he asked Olsen to stay on a little while longer. Olsen agreed and continued volunteering with the department through the early 2000s.

Olsen was a quiet, easy going person who didn’t feel the need to be in the limelight, Predmore said. Despite that, he was someone that everyone looked up to and respected, Predmore said.

Why? “He was Walter,” Predmore said with a laugh.

“Walter didn’t say a lot, but when he had something to say, it was worth listening to, and people paid attention,” Predmore said. “I don’t think there’s anybody who knew Walter that didn’t learn from him.”

First responders like firefighters respond to a variety of calls, from rescuing kittens in storm drains to aiding people injured in gruesome traffic accidents or residential fires. Learning how to process and commiserate over those traumatic calls is a skill, and Olsen was there for people, Predmore said.

“(Olsen) was easy to talk to; he always had an ear for you,” Predmore said. “A lot of the way people in emergency services deal with that stuff is just to talk about it. … Walter understood it, had experienced it himself, and if you sat down and talked to him, you didn’t have to guess as to whether he was listening.”

Matt McCollum, a retired Buckley resident, got to know Olsen working at the museum.

“He was a real nice fella, interesting to talk to, and knew a lot about the local history,” McCollum said. “It seemed like he could just build about anything. … He just seemed like a really good guy.”

Washington’s 31st District Rep. Eric Robertson (R-Sumner) grew up two doors down from Olsen in Buckley, his family close friends with Olsen’s.

“We didn’t have a lot but we took care of each other,” Robertson said. “Walt was one that was always quick to come over and help on a house remodel project. … He was just always there to lend a hand.”

Olsen was quiet, with a wry sense of humor and a love for getting the kids in the room laughing, such as holding up his fingers like rabbit ears behind them in pictures, Robertson said. He wasn’t the first to speak, but when he did, “something really thoughtful or important would come out.”

In the middle of volunteering at the fire department and museum, Olsen slowly rebuilt a Ford Model A that Robertson said turned out “just absolutely stunningly beautiful.” And Olsen was constantly taking on new projects and interests, from wood working to restoring old printing presses.

“He’s the type of person that if you needed something to be done, he would read about it, and all of the sudden, he’d be rebuilding or retooling it and it would come out fabulous,” Robertson said.

When Martha Olsen served on city council and as mayor, Walter was there to support her, Robertson said. Ultimately, he was “just one of those folks” who left fingerprints all over his community, Robertson said, from the museum grounds to the fire station and across the city.

“We’re all super fortunate that we had him in our lives,” Robertson said.