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For Olson, giving back to his alma mater is a matter of loyalty

Charlie Olson, a former gridiron great for DU, regularly donates to the University. Photo: Penrose Library–Special Collections

It’s a brisk October day in 1955. Three young men in University of Denver football uniforms stand on a sideline, their coach hovering nearby. One of the players, a tall, buzz-cut lineman wearing No. 78 and a wide grin, holds the game ball.

That moment almost six decades ago — when DU beat Brigham Young University 30-0 — is timeless for Charles “C.J.” Olson, frozen in a black-and-white photograph that hangs in Olson’s cluttered office.

It represents much more than the former team captain’s gridiron glory. It is a reminder of Olson’s journey during those years, the new perspectives and knowledge that opened his eyes to worlds he had never imagined growing up on a small farm.

His age now only two years shy of his former jersey number, Olson is reflective yet garrulous. On a recent weekday afternoon in Sunnyvale, Calif., Olson showed a visitor around the small fruit orchards he runs while talking at length about everything from 19th century robber barons to the cost of dental work. An employee’s months-old puppy chewed on Olson’s bootlaces but failed to distract the longtime farmer and businessman.

Before he arrived at DU, Olson’s world didn’t extend past the city limits of Sunnyvale, a once-rural community. Olson’s grandparents left Sweden during an 1875 famine and made their way to California by way of Minnesota. A real estate marketer’s promise of a free train ride and a generous barbecue meal lured Olson’s grandfather to Sunnyvale.

“Here’s a little pocket of the perfect dirt,” Olson says of the area’s rich gravel-and-loam soil.

As Sunnyvale grew to become a fruit-growing capital, the so-called “Valley of Heart’s Delight,” the Olsons saw their apricot, cherry and prune orchards expand to more than 100 acres. Within a few decades though, population and development pressures began to push out family farms.

The world was changing for Sunnyvale and for Olson. After graduating from a local junior college, Olson enrolled at DU in part to play Division I football under famed coach Bob Blackman. Olson had never been more than a few hours’ drive from Sunnyvale.

“I didn’t know anything about Denver,” he recalls.

He didn’t know much about maturity either. As the six-foot-three-inch tackle helped lead the 1954 team to a 9-1 record — DU’s best ever — he was also learning lessons in humility. On the one hand, he travelled to distant away games by plane and stayed in nice hotels — new and awe-inspiring experiences. On the other hand, Olson failed a statistics class and his fellow students made clear he was abrasive and overly macho.

“You find out that doesn’t carry you too far,” he says.

So, the young football star toned down his brashness and emulated the more gentlemanly and studious of his classmates. He asked for extra help and eventually earned a B+ in statistics.

After leaving DU, Olson declined offers from the St. Louis Rams and Chicago Bears in order to play in the Canadian Football League for a staggering annual salary of $6,000. Olson would play only four games as a linebacker and tackle for the Edmonton Eskimos before he was called home. The farm was struggling, Olson had a baby on the way and a foot injury was hobbling him.

“I saw the writing on the wall,” he says.

The years that followed were progressively leaner for the Olson family orchards as labor costs and property values skyrocketed. When Olson’s father died in 1980, the farm was at a crossroads. The property — in the middle of burgeoning Silicon Valley — was assessed at a tremendous value. The resulting inheritance taxes were massive.

“It seemed like an avalanche of problems we had never encountered before,” he says.

Seeing no option, Olson developed the land.

These days, nothing is left of Olson’s Sunnyvale orchards. The 74-year-old continues to farm a plot outside town as well as 12 acres of apricot trees and three acres of cherry trees on city-owned land.

The cherry orchard is wedged between a six-lane road and a tennis complex. Olson’s old cherry orchard is now a small outdoor mall and Cherry Orchard Apartment Homes. His grandfather’s five-acre farm is now a Target.

As he gives an informal tour of Sunnyvale in his beat-up 1984 GMC pickup, Olson expresses a mix of regret and satisfaction. He is sad to see a way of life disappear but glad for the income leases on his property bring in. He is proud of his daughter, Deborah, who has grown the family’s decades-old fruit stand — C.J. Olson Cherries — into a respected purveyor of fresh and dried fruits as well as assorted homemade delicacies. The stand’s customers have included Julia Child and Martha Stewart, among food world celebrities.

Olson keeps tending the city-owned orchards to maintain a connection to the past, to his ancestors, to the land.

“I guess I am kind of a throwback,” he says.

He is a throwback to a time when attention to detail and quality mattered. It’s why a street in Sunnyvale bears his name. It’s why generations of locals come to the fruit stand for what they call Olson apricots.

For his part, Olson keeps coming back to DU, literally. He attends reunions every year and donates generously and regularly. He was sad to see the school’s football program end in 1961, but is stunned by DU’s academic and athletic progress since then. “I’m proud of that school.”

Pride explains only part of Olson’s connection to his alma mater however.

“Denver treated me really well,” he says of the scholarship he received, the professors who pushed him and the friends who inspired him. “I’m kind of a loyal guy. You give back.”

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