There was an audible gasp when Pastor Tim Christenson announced at church that Merv Olson died a couple days earlier, on June 13.
Rev. Merv Olson served as pastor of Gold Hill Lutheran Church in Butte through most of the 1990s before he and his wife, Joyce, retired, moving to a new home they built along the Yellowstone River, north of Gardiner, and opening a bed and breakfast business. They later retired again, moving to Bozeman.
Merv had a long career as a Lutheran clergyman, taking a number of “interim” assignments in his retirement years, and wherever he went he became known as a real character. I’d guess there are people all over Montana telling Pastor Merv stories as they mourn his death.
We had the common experience of growing up on southern Minnesota farms and when Merv’s sermon was on the Parable of the Mustard Seed, he’d look at me and wink, because as farm boys, we both walked grain fields to pull wild mustard plants, back before farmers dumped chemicals on fields for seemingly everything.
Merv was an enthusiastic hunter. During his years in Butte we got together a couple times to tramp a creek bottom in search of pheasants, though looking back at those hunts, I don’t think we ever fired a shot at a pheasant.
After Merv retired we’d annually get together to hunt wild turkeys in the Big Timber area, where he’d gotten acquainted with landowners on another of those interim assignments. Our hunting success was defined by good conversation and enjoying quality time. Unfortunately, we never scored a strutting turkey in our hunts, though one year we actually got a couple shots.
Merv enjoyed most hunting, but it was elk that stirred his passions. On opening day (back when firearms season opened on Sundays), you could depend on a short sermon, as he was anxious to get out for an afternoon hunt. If he had a couple days free he’d be on the road to their property at Gardiner. When he wasn’t hunting for himself he went out of his way to help others get an elk.
I never developed that passion for hunting elk, though the few I did bring home, back in the days of the Gardiner late season hunts, were through Merv’s efforts, one way or another.
My first elk came when my friend, John Banovich, and I stayed at Merv’s cabin, before they built their new home. It was a bone-chilling cold morning, but both John and I got cow elk that morning.
After Merv and Joyce moved to their new home, Merv was my guide on a couple more hunts.
On one hunt, we spotted a group of elk at the top of a talus hillside. I took a successful shot at a cow and the elk collapsed and went rolling down the rocky hillside, coming to a stop when it jammed up against a clump of sagebrush.
That elk was stuck! It was a tricky climb up the hillside and then a miserable job dislodging that dead elk from the brush. Somehow we did it and rolled the elk the rest of the way down the hill where we were able to dress it out and load it into the truck. I truly couldn’t have done it without Merv’s help.
Merv reveled in living in the heart of elk country. Daily, he’d glass the mountainside across the river from their home. Elk often raided his garden, doting on pumpkins and squash, and stripped his apple trees. Every trip into town was a scouting trip. With his signature big smile, he’d display plaster casts of grizzly bear tracks from his yard.
Merv had health problems in recent years, including cancer. In April he posted on Facebook that he had good news from his oncologist, adding, “This old preacher may be around for a few more sermons, and I might even get my desk and garage cleaned before my expiration date. Joyce says not a chance on getting the desk cleaned.”
If your life has been a living sermon we don’t worry about clean desks.