Robert William Olson, 82

October 30, 2023
Professor Robert William Olson Professor Robert William Olson

Professor Robert William Olson died on Oct. 14, 2023, in Seattle. He was 82 years old.

Known to all his friends and family as Bob, he was born Dec. 14, 1940, in Devils Lake, North Dakota, to Percy Bennett Olson and Constance Jean Stewart.

When he was three, Professor Olson and his family moved to Lake of the Woods County in northern Minnesota, where he attended grade school. He later attended high school in nearby Baudette before attending Bemidji State University, where he graduated cum laude in 1962.

Soon afterward, he made what he would always describe as a life-changing decision to join the newly formed Peace Corps, serving in Turkey from 1963-65. After leaving the Peace Corps, Professor Olson traveled extensively in the Middle East before earning his Ph.D. from Indiana University, where he met and then married the former Judith Lenore Peterson.

Together, they moved to Istanbul, where he did research for his dissertation on the Sheik Said Rebellion, a thesis that was later published as a book. From 1972-73, Professor Olson taught at Clemson University before spending the next 47 years as a professor of Middle East History at the University of Kentucky.

In addition to receiving numerous academic grants, he was selected as a University Research professor in 1996, chosen as the Albert D. And Elizabeth H. Kirwan Memorial Prize University Professor in 1999, and named Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor for the 2000-01 academic year.

Professor Olson authored books detailing major historical events of the 18th, 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries that occurred in four different countries: Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran. Five of his books were translated into Turkish, Arabic, Persian, Kurdish, and French.

Professor Olson and his colleague, Michael Gunther of Tennessee Technical University, are the principal co-founders of Kurdish Studies in the United States. Together, they were authors of numerous books, articles, reviews, and essays relating to the Kurds and their history. Professor Olson himself authored ten books and edited four on the subject.

In 2015, Professor Olson was honored with a “Lifetime Achievement Award in Recognition of Exceptional Contributions to the field of Kurdish Studies” by the Kurdish Studies Association of the Middle East Studies Association.

He would continue to document and offer his opinions on the Middle East after retiring from full-time teaching in 2010. Professor Olson wrote numerous op-eds for the Lexington Herald-Leader and Today’s Zaman, an English-language newspaper in Istanbul. In 2016, he was the recipient of a Festschrift. This celebratory publication written in his honor was titled “Kurdish Issues: Essays in Honor of Robert W. Olson.” It featured essays and contributions from 13 distinguished scholars. Professor Olson considered it a highlight of his life.

In addition to his academic work, he was an avid gardener, world traveler, hiker, and a great storyteller who cherished his family and adored his grandchildren.

In addition to his wife, Judith, Professor Olson is survived by his daughter Amanda Stewart Olson (Jeff Elrod); grandson Silas and granddaughter Ruby of Seattle; daughter Rebecca Anna Church (Jeremy) and grandsons Addison and Cooper of Pittsburgh; sisters Marlene Yvonne Dahl, Carol Jean Nordli, Ardis Rae Brink, Linda Darnell Crocker, Diane Julie Mehra; and brother, Gerald Lee Olson.

He was preceded in death by his brothers Wayne Douglas Olson, Ronald Clair Olson, Richard Dean Olson, and Percy Olson Jr.

After spending the previous 49 years in Lexington, Bob and his wife relocated in 2022 to Seattle, where Judith still lives.

A memorial service will be held at a later date. Donations in Professor Olson’s name may be made to the charity of your choice.