Earlier this year, in the heart of Minnesota’s capital city, a unique entertainment venue called Can Can Wonderland opened its doors in a building that was once the American Can Company. The main attraction is an indoor mini-golf course that exudes a Willy Wonka chocolate factory vibe. It pays homage to the building’s former tin can manufacturing glory, with walk-through metal sculptures designed by local artists.
My grandfather, Robert Olsen, spent 36 years working in that building. As the superintendent of the lithography department at American Can Company, he oversaw the process of making offset printing plates and ensuring the cans were printed just right, to the satisfaction of big food companies like Fisher Nuts, Hormel and Pepsi.
Tin and cans infiltrated every part of his life. Sheets of metal printed with not-quite-right images adorned his garage walls. Defective SPAM and soda cans were used to store fishing sinkers and loose change throughout my grandparents’ home. And when he retired, my grandpa was presented with a special can printed with an image of him riding a giant green northern pike, along with bright red text that said, “It’s the ‘reel’ thing!” and “I’m off the hook at last!”
My grandpa would have turned 100 years old this Friday. He was a lovable teddy bear with a sly smile, a quick wit and a sarcastic sense of humor. As my aunt and I reminisced about him at lunch earlier this week, we laughed at the thought of his ghost playing practical jokes on staff and visitors at Can Can Wonderland.
That conversation got me thinking about some of the most important lessons about work and life that I learned from my grandfather.
He left the house before sunrise every morning and did not return until dinnertime. When Hormel wasn’t satisfied with ink colors on SPAM cans, Grandpa would take a trip to Austin, Minnesota to smooth things over. When the night shift manager encountered a problem he couldn’t solve, he’d call Grandpa at home for guidance.
After retirement, my grandpa took a part-time maintenance job at a small manufacturing company. He was revered for his management of the company’s parking lot during the Minnesota State Fair. Directly across the street from the fairgrounds, he orchestrated the parking of thousands of cars in a pay lot that generated hundreds of thousands of dollars over the last two weeks of every summer.
I worked at the company as an office assistant right out of high school. Whenever I ran into the president he would say, “You’re a hard worker, just like your grandfather!” I was proud to uphold his legacy.
Make time for hobbies.
While he was devoted to his work, my grandpa loved his hobbies more. He was an artist at heart. He dreamt of moving to California to work as an illustrator for Walt Disney, but he settled for creating large landscape paintings in his makeshift basement studio. Everyone in our family had one of his original works framed and hanging in their living room.
When I was in kindergarten he began teaching me to paint still lifes—first with paint-by-numbers kits and eventually with acrylic paints on small white canvasses. When I announced to my grandma that I planned to be an artist one day, she quipped, “All artists are starving.” Grandpa quickly retorted, “Everyone needs art!”
Fishing was his favorite pastime, even during Minnesota’s subzero winters and oftentimes before mass on Sunday. As legend has it, he would show up to church straight from the frozen lake, with his ice fishing gear in the back seat of his car and fishing hooks stuck to his coat.
Be a helper.
My grandpa had a heart of gold. He genuinely connected with others and was quick to lend a helping hand to family, friends and neighbors. He’d happily assist my grandma with any household task she assigned, and he took it in stride when she teased, “I don’t need a dishwasher; I have Grandpa.”
He had a soft spot for children, particularly his 17 grandchildren. After he retired from his part-time gig, he volunteered his time at Gillette Children’s Hospital, reading books to pediatric patients who were often very sick. He was a kid at heart and every child adored him.
Eat dessert, take naps, and stop and smell the roses.
Grandpa had a wicked sweet tooth and his favorite part of every meal was dessert. He was skilled at falling asleep anywhere and at any time, and he convinced me that even Superman took naps.
As a kid, I spent a lot of time playing in the backyard of my grandparents’ St. Paul home, swaying on the four-person glider swing Grandpa built, while he methodically watered the flowers and lovingly tended to his birdfeeders. If I announced I was bored, he’d say all it took to solve that problem was a little imagination. And when his work was done, we’d sip iced tea together, and he’d point out various bird and plant species.
When it was time to head back into the house, our routine was to take a whiff of the rose blooms in my grandmother’s garden. “Always stop and smell the roses,” he would say. My grandpa had a knack for appreciating the little things in life.
About the author: A strategic storyteller and an inspired graphic designer, Chris Olsen has devoted her career to connecting individuals and organizations using the power of words, images and experiences.