What started out as a part-time job quickly developed into a full-time position that was more than Bruce Olson ever could have imagined.
Olson, who is soon retiring as the Legacy of the Lakes Museum executive director, said the years spent working for the museum were some of the best, but he believes now is the right time for him to retire. His last full day was July 31, but he will continue part-time through October.
"I feel good about leaving," said the 69-year-old who has lived in the Alexandria area since the 1970s. "The museum is at a maturity level that it now needs different skills and she (Carol Swenson, the new executive director) has those skills."
Olson began his career with the museum 12 years ago, when it was known as the Minnesota Lakes Maritime Museum. The name change, or rebranding, he said, in 2017 made it more clear that the museum was not only about the past, but also about making future memories.
The idea for the museum came about in the mid-1990s, according to Olson.
"There were a few of us who started restoring old boats and then we had a boat show," he said. "Then we thought about taking it to a more cultural level and focused on boats and lake life and preserving of memories."
That, he said, is how the museum got its start. The land for the museum was purchased in 2005 with the museum - situated across the street from the Alexandria Fire Station, along Third Avenue West - making its debut the following year.
Over the years, it has expanded from strictly a boat museum to what Olson calls a "beautiful museum with an exhibit hall, gardens, learning center, community gathering space and memory-making space for baptisms, wedding and funerals."
All of that took a little time.
"It started out a little rough, with pictures thumbtacked on burlap," he recalled. "But with the professional connections, volunteer work and pride in doing things well, the museum has come a long way."
Place of honor
In the spring of 2016, Bob Brickweg, a friend of Olson's, and Marie Anderson, Olson's wife, conspired on a project for the Legacy Gardens. The project is a sitting area in the garden that includes a beautiful stone bench and waterfall, with a smaller garden surrounding the space.
"We wanted to do it to honor Bruce. We wanted a special place within the bigger garden for him," Anderson said. "It was fun to do because we actually surprised him."
She recalls secret meetings with those involved in the project, which were hard to pull off since "old eagle eye," as Anderson referred to her husband, knows everything that goes on at the museum.
However, Anderson and Olson were scheduled for a two-week trip out of the country, which would give the builders time to complete the project. Anderson said the builders worked on it day and night so it would be done in time for the couple's return.
There was a surprise unveiling for Olson's dedicated garden space with friends and family, including their three children, Kristoff, Lydia and Ahna.
"It was a very intricate plan, but we pulled it off," Anderson said. "When he saw it, he was completely surprised."
Olson agreed and said the whole thing was very emotional and that he feels very blessed.
Olson is proudest of all the volunteers that have worked so hard to the museum what it is today.
"They do it with joy and leave here with a feeling and willingness of wanting to come back," he said.
Anderson said it has always amazed her at how her husband connects with people and how so many have stepped up to help because of their connection with him.
All the work at the museum, from the building of the museum itself to the work on the gardens, the signs in front of the museum and most everything else has been donated.
"All this work here has been given to us," said Olson. "It's been such a transformation. It's just incredible. I just marvel at what this museum have become."
Olson noted that the nonprofit world is different and that the museum relies heavily on memberships to help stimulate its environment.
When the museum first opened its doors, the membership was barely at 100, and now it has well over 400 active members.
"We are having one of the best years ever," he said. "We have been setting records for attendance at the museum and our events and that is a big deal for us."
Olson credits a rotating exhibit, as well as other yearly exhibits, that make the museum new and fresh so that members, as well as newcomers, keep returning year after year.
"There is so much to see that people have to keep coming back," Olson said.
As executive director, Olson implemented a plan to change at least 25 percent of the exhibits each year to keep the museum from getting stagnant. He also secured grants to improve gallery lighting and to create a long-range interpretive plan that will guide the museum into the future.
Membership has also increased, because of the concert series that has grown over the years.
"The concerts give value to our membership," he said.
His dedication to the museum has caused Olson to make sacrifices, and he is grateful for all of the support he has received over the past dozen years.
"I am wealthy man in that regard," he said. "I've had an opportunity to grow some wonderful friendships in this process and have a wonderfully supportive family. I feel I have a wealth that would make others envious. But I owe Marie a lot and am very fortunate to have her by my side."
With his retirement, Olson plans to "spend more time with his sweetheart and his kids," and he wants to spend his time learning things like welding, volunteering with the hospice program, and traveling with his wife.
He also plans on spending time on the lake in his 1957 Chris Craft Capri.
"I so very much enjoy putting that big hunk of mahogany in the water," he said. "I just love that boat."
Olson also has expectations for the museum he oversaw for so many years.
"I expect the museum to continue to grow and keep going for years and years," he said. "I expect the gardens to be a grand centerpiece that will be used for events and I expect the boathouse to be a memory-making space for the community."
If you go
WHAT: "Bruce's Garden Party" doubles as Olson's retirement party and as a fundraiser for the Legacy Gardens.
WHERE: Legacy of the Lakes Museum & Gardens
WHEN: Friday, Aug. 10, with social hour at 5 p.m., dinner from 5:30-7:30 p.m., and live music with Davina and the Vagabonds from 7-9 p.m.
TICKETS: $40 per person with proceeds helping to fund a Gardener's House for museum and garden volunteers' workspace and storage.
INFO: To purchase tickets, call 320-759-1114 or stop into the museum, 205 Third Street West.