Remembering John Oleson: Aviator and wildlife lover left his mark on the valley
Descended from the county’s earliest pioneers, Oleson loved flying, snowmobiling, wild animals and firing his cannon at his Salt Creek home
Special to the Daily
Longtime Eagle County resident John R. Oleson, 79, died at his Salt Creek home on March 13, closing a significant chapter in county history. Natural causes related to congestive heart failure were the official cause of death. His son Garrett and many friends believe the actual cause was “poor health from living a damn fun life.”
Descended from the county’s earliest pioneers, Oleson left his mark on the valley. He was an avid pilot and savvy businessman who established the first Fixed Base Operation at the Eagle County Airport, serving the general aviation community for decades before the Vail Valley Jet Center was even a concept. His charter airplane flight clients were often world-famous.
He had a deep appreciation for wild animals, both as a very competent muzzle-loader hunter and an avid wildlife observer. Oleson’s computer contains thousands of photos of deer, elk, bear and countless other species from his years of outdoor experience. During his lifetime, he owned two pet mountain lions.
Oleson enjoyed gun collecting, purchasing his first gun at age 13 at Chicago’s Marshall Field’s department store at a time when gun ownership was a casual transaction.
He particularly liked antique guns. His collection includes a cannon, a prohibition-era machine gun and an engraved 1880s handgun that belonged to Eagle County’s first sheriff, N.L. Eby. Oleson was a Benefactor Life Member of the National Rifle Association and supported many pro-Second Amendment organizations.
A history buff, he collected and displayed Old West memorabilia in his home. Oleson enjoyed shooting sports, particularly Cowboy Action Shooting contests which involved dressing in Old West-style clothing and competing as the “Salt Creek Shootist.”
He had great fun snowmobiling and four-wheeling. Oleson liked sipping Old Crow whiskey and social visits to the Brush Creek Saloon.
And, as he noted in the obituary notes that he wrote for himself, Oleson enjoyed doing things with his son Garrett most of all.
Eagle County roots
The family had strong ties to Gypsum, where John’s grandfather, Danish immigrant Julius P. Oleson, settled in 1889. John’s father, Harry Oleson, was born in Gypsum and his mother Virginia was from Carbondale. Likely the hard times of the Great Depression prompted Harry Oleson to move his family to Illinois.
John was born March 4, 1942 in Berwyn, Ill., and spent his early childhood around Riverside, Ill. Young John rode the train to Gypsum for summer visits with his grandparents. Harry Oleson’s family returned to Gypsum permanently in 1956. John graduated from Eagle Valley High School in 1960.
Always interested in flying, he joined the Air Force, spending a year at Lowery Air Force Base in Denver and three years in Germany.
After the Air Force, Oleson attended Colorado State University, living frugally in a camper on the back of his pickup truck, obtaining a wildlife management degree and a commercial pilot’s license in 1968. Following college graduation, Oleson earned his instrument and multi-engine ratings from Emery Aviation in Greeley.
He returned to Eagle County with the idea of establishing an aviation business at the rural airport on Cooley Mesa.
Mountain Flying Service
Oleson’s business venture was backed financially by William F. Stevens, the local state legislator. Oleson acquired a 99-year lease from Eagle County for a chunk of land on the north side of the airport, hauled in a single-wide trailer and established Mountain Flying Service. At a time when jet landings were a rarity and the airport consisted of little more than a 5,000-foot paved runway surrounded by sagebrush, Oleson invested in underground jet fuel tanks, pumps, filters and a hangar. He provided rental car and limousine service. Oleson lived modestly in a trailer home behind the hangars.
He worked every day providing fuel and other services to the flying public, while also offering charter flights and flying instruction. The Mountain Flying Service airplane tows were old Jeeps painted bright orange. He continually worked to improve the airport.
“He could do anything … weld, pilot, keep books. There is nobody that has done more for that airport than John Oleson,” says Gene Slaughter, a former employee and close friend.
Oleson was financially disciplined. His meticulous bookkeeping earned high praise from his auditor. In Oleson’s lifetime, he paid a mere 13 cents in interest on his personal credit card.
His employees recall a beloved boss who was quiet yet social and treated employees well.
“He was an observer and a thinker,” recalls Carol Vignola. Oleson often whistled tunes while working in his office.
The nature of his business and proximity of Vail brought many famous clients to Mountain Flying Service, including actors, entertainers, politicians and professional athletes. Oleson never bragged or dropped names, but his photo album bristles with snapshots of celebrities including Robert Redford, Gregory Peck, Sammy Davis Jr., Jackie Gleason, Gary Hart, Henry Kissinger, President Gerald Ford, Jimmy Connors and Arnold Palmer.
One of Oleson’s repeat charter flight clients was gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson of Aspen. Oleson claimed to have given Thompson the idea of having his cremated ashes blasted out of a cannon.
Occasionally Oleson brought his leashed mountain lion to the office for a visit.
“It always made the Secret Service guys a little nervous,” Slaughter says.
Mountain Flying Service grew along with the airport, expanding to a bigger building and eventually employing 10 people during the busy season.
In 1988, Eagle County’s airport plans became ambitious, and the rules and regulations became onerous. Oleson, whose business was the heart of the airport for over 20 years, sold Mountain Flying Service to former Vail Resorts CEO George Gillett and retired at age 46.
Salt Creek haven
Oleson’s favorite place was his mountain home on Salt Creek, 11 miles southeast out of Eagle. He paid a “family special” price for 160 acres of land acquired by relatives at a tax sale in the 1930s. Oleson designed his log house, positioning it for the best view of New York Mountain. His mountain lion lived in a large enclosure nearby. Friends note that John “played hard” in his retirement.
The unexpected boom of a cannon was a sure sign that John was entertaining company, recall longtime neighbors Allan and C.C. Nottingham. Upon request, the accommodating Oleson would fire the cannon for the entertainment of the Nottingham sons’ Boy Scout troop. Allan was among the squadron of friends with four-wheelers who helped Oleson tow a claw-footed bathtub up to a natural spring, creating a watering hole perfect for wild animals and trail cameras.
“He loved animals. He loved nature,” recalls Nottingham. Oleson’s son Garrett ticks off a list of animals at the house over the years including dogs, a cat that hung out with a marmot, a coyote, a bobcat and lots of squirrels. John kept a neatly-written journal recording the arrival of the first hummingbird or the fox snacking from a pet food bowl on the porch.
Neighbor Jonathan Saiber enjoyed Oleson’s visits and “inspections” of a long-term house construction project. Saiber grew up just north of New York City.
“I learned how to enjoy the land and how to work with Salt Creek from John,” Saiber says.
Oleson left his mark on Eagle County and will be deeply missed by family and friends.
John Oleson is survived by his son Garrett and daughter-in-law Renee of Eagle, former wife Sandra (Wimmer) Pirnie of Panama and cousin Bill Opdyke of California.
Rather than a traditional memorial service, his family will host a gathering at the Salt Creek house in late spring. At John’s request, his ashes will be shot from his cannon. Contributions in Oleson’s name should be made to the National Rifle Association at donate/nra.org or at NRA, 11250 Waples Mill Road, Fairfax, VA, 22030.