“Heading west to Madison, as soon as I see the Capitol on the horizon, I know that I’ll be on campus soon, and my batteries are recharged.” – Ralph Norman Olsen, MD ’54, Col. Ret., U.S. Army
Ralph N. Olsen, MD ’54, has shared myriad stories with his wife, Eugenie Olsen, and his five children—Cecily Olsen, Wendy Olsen, Jordana Lenon, Charles Olsen and Paul Olsen—yet they never tire of hearing them. When they drive with “Doc” around the campus of his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the tour usually begins on Langdon Street.
“There is the Badger House, where I was living on the coldest day recorded in Madison. It was minus 37 degrees Fahrenheit on January 30, 1951,” Ralph Olsen exclaims. “Our boiler blew, and there was no heat, so I moved into the Memorial Union for a few days, showering, eating and studying there, and returning to my apartment only at night to slip into my sleeping bag and try to keep warm.”
Turning left from Langdon onto Park Street, he continues, “And there is Science Hall! That top window is where I dissected my first human cadaver.”
Next, taking a right off Park Street and heading west on University Avenue, he proclaims, “There is the old Wisconsin General Hospital, where I worked as the chief pediatric resident during the height of Wisconsin’s polio epidemic in 1955.”
Descriptions of his earlier time as an undergraduate in the late 1940s are interspersed, as Ralph Olsen travels up Henry Mall to Linden Drive and sees Agricultural Hall, where he took many classes. He lived nearby in the lakeshore dorms, in the Mack House, which also housed his grandson 64 years later.
Ralph Olsen’s fondest memories as an undergraduate, however, are from the time he lived at Truax Field for two years following World War II.
“The UW men’s residence halls took over the barracks and hospital at Truax, which afforded a wonderful environment and great camaraderie,” he recalls.
Ralph Olsen’s recollections circle back to West Washington Avenue, with its rows of old, three-story, balconied wooden houses.
“I see that my old apartment is still full of students,” he says.
From there, it’s time to check into a nearby hotel and get ready to attend either a reunion of his graduating class from the UW Medical School (now called the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, or SMPH), or a dinner for the school’s Middleton Society—through which he has donated a scholarship, the Ralph Olsen American Indian Award, which was given in 2019 and 2020 to grateful medical students.
Sometimes Ralph Olsen visits UW-Madison to attend the graduation of a grandchild, or to don his military uniform and join his son Charles Olsen and the cadets at the annual ROTC Scabbard and Blade dinner.
A veteran himself, Ralph Olsen is proud that his family is Army-strong: Paul Olsen achieved the rank of colonel in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; Charles Olsen became a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Signal Corps; and Eugenie Olsen was a first lieutenant and Korean War veteran in the U.S. Army Medical Specialist Corps.
Other than Paul Olsen, who lives in Virginia, Ralph Olsen’s children all live in Wisconsin. Four of them—Paul, Charles and Wendy Olsen, and Jordana Lenon—earned degrees from UW-Madison.
Ralph Olsen, born in 1929, is the son of Norman and Margery Olsen of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He is an Eagle Scout who has always enjoyed camping, fishing, hunting, canoeing, sailing, ice boating and woodworking. He remains active in the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), a family tradition that began when his “Uncle Paul was scoutmaster of Troop 1 in Milwaukee.” One of Ralph Olsen’s sons, Paul Olsen, and three grandsons have achieved the rank of Eagle Scout. For years, Ralph Olsen served as a pediatrician for the Bay Lakes Council, among the BSA’s largest geographic councils.
Rewinding to 1947, Ralph Olsen entered UW-Madison as a zoology major and studied under Professor John T. Emlen, PhD.
“I was Dr. Emlen’s teaching assistant for Introduction to Bird Watching and also his lab assistant, which was rare for an undergraduate,” says Ralph Olsen, adding that he proudly supports the Department of Zoology’s John T. Emlen Distinguished Lecture Series to this day.
This experience helped launch a lifelong interest in birds for Ralph Olsen, an active member of the Horicon Marsh Bird Club. He has presented bird lectures to clubs and societies throughout southeastern Wisconsin.
After receiving his bachelor’s degree in medical science, Ralph Olsen began medical school at UW-Madison, earned his medical degree in 1954 and received his Wisconsin medical license in 1955. That summer, he was thrust into the height of Wisconsin’s polio epidemic as a young pediatric resident.
In the ensuing years, Ralph Olsen completed an internship at Eastern Maine General Hospital in Bangor, where Cecily Olsen was born during his brief marriage to her mother, Sally Van Cleef. Ralph Olsen then began a residency at Fitzsimons Army Hospital in Denver. He earned his American Board of Pediatrics certification in 1958. From 1958 to 1959, he served in the 101st Airborne Division and received the paratrooper’s badge.
While at Fitzsimons, Captain Ralph Olsen met First Lieutenant Eugenie Fisher, and they married on July 4, 1959, in New York City. The newlyweds promptly moved overseas, where Ralph Olsen was stationed as the chief of pediatrics at the 34th General Hospital in La Chapelle, France.
Three years later, after they moved to Wisconsin, Ralph Olsen entered private pediatric practice in Milwaukee. The couple raised a family in Elm Grove, and Ralph Olsen remained active in the Wisconsin National Guard as the artillery surgeon for the 32nd Division. Achieving the rank of colonel, he returned to active duty in 1984 as the chief of pediatrics at the U.S. Military Academy West Point. In 1988, he and his wife built a house in West Bend, Wisconsin, near their beloved Big Cedar Lake, and near family and friends. He completed his career at the West Bend General Clinic and retired in 2002.
Called “Doc” by just about everyone who knows him, Ralph Olsen is proud to have served so many patients—including multiple generations of patients—over the decades.
“In the care of children, it’s the attitude and the approach that count the most, not just the specific procedures,” he says.
Ralph Olsen is most proud of his family, his lifelong passion for birds, his years at UW-Madison, and his service and friends in the U.S. Army.
“I have such fond memories of the Army and I am proud of all the physicians who have served,” he reflects.
Ralph Olsen looks forward to his next visit to Madison and the university campus, where—most certainly—the old stories will pour forth once again.
—About the author: Jordana Lenon, senior editor at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center at UW-Madison, is Ralph Olsen’s daughter.