Former Whitewater Unified School District student Tommy Olson talks to middle school staffers about his troubled childhood and how teachers helped him turn his life around. (Tom Ganser photo)

Tommy Olson returns to Whitewater with a message: ‘Don’t give up on kids’

By Tom Ganser

Correspondent

Not many who knew Tommy Olson in middle school would have predicted him becoming a commercial banking executive for Old National Bank.

However, in a meeting with Whitewater Middle School staff on Sept. 19, Olson shared the critical role that teachers played in changing the direction of his life, one heading from certain crash and burn toward a remarkably successful path.

Olson said his goal was to communicate the message, “Don’t give up on kids. It’s never too late.”

WMS Principal Chris Fountain invited Olson. Their paths crossed between 2001 and 2003 at Norris School in Mukwonago, where Olson was a participant in the residential treatment program for boys and Fountain worked as a teacher and coach.

Today, Olson serves as a member of the Norris Inc. Board of Directors.

After graduation from New Berlin Eisenhower High School in 2004, where he spent his senior year, Olson earned a degree in finance at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls and subsequently master’s degrees in financial analytics from UW-Milwaukee and in applied economics from Marquette University.

Most recently, he has participated in a summer program for bank executives at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.

While working at BMO Harris Bank, Olson was recognized as a top 10 banker nationally.

But at age 9, Olson experienced a life-altering, traumatic event: He learned for the first time that his biological mother died when he was born.

“Tommy was never told that,” Fountain said. “He believed that his whole life was a lie. People he trusted and loved the most had been lying to him his whole life, so he spiraled out of control.”

“Some teachers never gave up, whether I wanted to accept their help or not,” Olson said. “I was a challenge in every way. I would probably be the worst kid walking these halls back then.

“It was just a mess. I don’t even know how to give you a real organized thought on it other than I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know how to solve it. I needed help in that. The help came in realizing that it didn’t have to last forever, and the behaviors and the consequences from them didn’t have to last forever either.”

And that’s when things began to turn around.

“History wasn’t held against me (and) people felt I was worth saving,” Olson said. “At Norris, every day was a new day. You could have a bad day one day, but the next day was a new day and a new opportunity to do right. Every day I got a fresh start and (teachers) gave me great direction, and they never gave up hope. And one day I just realized that I couldn’t either.

“I was just tired of losing, to be honest,” he said. “I came in one day, had a fight, didn’t make it an hour and I was in the (timeout) booth for probably the fourth time that week. I just realized that I wasn’t going anywhere fast in the direction I was heading in life. Just decided to make a change. Became goal oriented, and I think it turned pretty quickly from there.”

Jim Hobart, a WMS health teacher who was one of Olson’s teachers at Norris, shared that the latter showed signs of leadership and accordingly was given opportunities to prove it.

“(Tommy) went from one of the biggest problems in the building to (being) an asset,” Hobart said.

“If you look at some of what I’ve been able to do in life, it’s probably because I wasn’t tired by the time I got out of high school,” Olson said. “I was just starting to get my life together and willing to work for what I wanted in life.”

Olson concluded his presentation after a thoughtful pause by saying, “Sometimes it can be a blessing in disguise to have a hard-headed kid that might be a pain in your butt. So don’t give up on him. Not everybody ends up in jail. There are happy endings, too.”

Angela Ketter is the information technology teacher at WMS and serves as the building technology coordinator.

“Mr. Olson offered a first-person account of what it is like for a student battling a crisis, whether that is a mental health or situational crisis,” Ketter said.

“We have been offered extensive opportunities at WUSD to learn about the ways in which to reach students who are struggling with trauma,” Ketter added. “Trauma-informed care is the focus for many schools right now, but the key piece that is missing among all of the expert training is understanding what a child is feeling during these times of trauma.

“Tommy was able to help us understand that piece and gives us hope that we can make a difference to a child who may be the most challenging in the classroom,” she said. “He inspired us to persevere even in the most difficult of times because you never know when you will finally reach a student and help them make better decisions for life-long change.”

 

 
 

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