He is considered one of the most dedicated teachers on campus, but both students and faculty may not be aware of the contributions that Dr. James Olson has bestowed upon Sam Houston State University.
Most students do know that the auditorium in AB4 has been named in honor of this professor, but they do not know the reason for the dedication, or much about his life in general.
Olson began his elaborate career by earning his Ph.D. from the State University of New York, Stony Brook campus. He was immediately offered multiple teaching positions after his graduation.
He chose to come to Sam Houston State in 1972, but Olson did not expect to love it so much that he would not be able to leave.
He said that SHSU gives him the chance to “take [his] research interest wherever [he] wants it to go,” and he loves how it “allows [him] to move into different areas.”
Olson said he enjoys teaching and researching at this school so much that he plans on “staying here till [he] retires.”
He has been teaching and doing his research at Sam for 35 years, which others have praised by itself. However, that is not where Olson’s story ends.
After eight years of teaching, he was diagnosed with a type of cancer known as Epithelioid Sarcoma. Olson said a deep lesion was found attached to the tendon in his left wrist and then the cancer slowly spread into his hand.
Although he went through treatment, studies show that it is fairly common for this type of cancer to keep reoccurring, which is exactly what happened to Olson.
In 1987, after five recurrences of the cancer, doctors decided the only thing left to do was to amputate his hand.
Olson did not let this hardship keep him from teaching and researching. He had his amputation surgery over Christmas break that year and returned to teaching in January.
After the amputation, Olson said he hoped that would be the end of his cancer-just six years later, another cancer was found in his forehead.
This time, doctors were fortunately able to remove the cancer successfully, giving Olson hope once again.
In 2000, he was involved in a car accident and was given a CAT scan to confirm that there was no serious injury. The CAT scan found another cancerous mass, known as an oligodendroglioma tumor, in his brain.
Doctors operated on Olson in 2002 and he also underwent chemotherapy.
The brain mass returned and he was operated on one more time in 2004.
Due to the location of the mass, doctors could not operate to get the rest of the tumor out; he was treated with brain radiation therapy in 2005 in an attempt to kill and then shrink the cancerous cells.
As a 27-year cancer survivor, Olson has experienced everything from depression to gratefulness.
He said there was a time where he worried about not being able to see his own children grow up. When he first got the news of his cancer, he had three kids, and one more on the way-fortunately, he has defeated the odds and been able to not only see his own children grow up, but he has had a chance to watch his 15 grandchildren begin their lives as well.
Olson said that his experiences with cancer has “made [him] a better teacher and a better person.”
He is “more understanding of students with disabilities,” as his brain cancer has affected some of his own abilities, such as telling time and sequencing.
Olson said he is also “better able to understand and help [students] with depression,” since he has experienced severe episodes himself.
It is estimated that Olson has taught over 35,000 students at Sam and throughout that time, and for his dedication, he was awarded the SHSU Excellence in Teaching Award in 1977.
Olson was also awarded the SHSU Excellence in Research Award in 1988, the first professor to ever receive both awards.
His dedication has also been recognized with the rank of Distinguished Professor of History, given to him in 1996, becoming the second professor at SHSU to ever receive the honor.
Olson has published over 40 books and received numerous awards. His works have done so well that he has appeared on Good Morning America to discuss one of his books, John Wayne: American.
One of his most distinguished books, Bathsheba’s Breast: Women, Cancer, and History, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 2002.
Olson is currently working on a book about the history of the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, which he is hoping to finish writing in the next few months.
Olson said that has achieved a full career and considers himself incredibly fortunate to have survived cancer so long to earn so many accomplishments.