Joan Olson

Joan Olson

  • Funeral Date: 11/02/15
  • Funeral Time: 2:00 PM
  • Date of Birth: 8/28/33
  • Date of Death: 10/22/15
  • Funeral Location: St. John's Lutheran Church - Northfield

Joan Rafaj Olson, age 82, passed away peacefully on Thursday, October 22, 2015, at the Northfield Retirement Community in Northfield, Minnesota.

Born on August 28, 1933, Joan was the youngest child of Rev. Paul and Susan Rafaj of Dickson City, Pennsylvania. She cherished her memories of growing up in the Slovak community centered around her father’s parish, St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church. She graduated valedictorian of Dickson City High School in 1950, Keystone Junior College in 1952, and Bucknell University in 1954, where she earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology. She went on to Cornell University where she earned a Master’s Degree in American and Slavic History in 1958. There she met her husband, Duane Olson, and began their loving 59-year marriage partnership. After spending two years in Liverpool, England, they moved to Northfield, Minnesota, when Duane returned to teach physics at his alma mater, St. Olaf College. Over time Joan came to love life in the Midwest and embraced this community that valued faith, arts and learning. They were blessed to raise their three children in Northfield.

In 1969, Joan became the first archivist at St. Olaf College. She worked for 29 years collecting and preserving materials on College history and assisting scholars in their research. Of special importance to her was the work she did helping Joseph Shaw gather materials for his book, History of St. Olaf College, 1874-1974. To many on campus, she was affectionately known as “Joan of Archives.”

Joan’s skills as an archivist were also applied to other Northfield institutions including St. John’s Lutheran Church and the Northfield Historical Society.

Additionally, she was recognized for her accomplishments and willingness to volunteer with many organizations and causes, sometimes breaking new ground. She was the first woman to serve as President of the Congregation at St. John’s Lutheran Church. She served as President of the Board at the Northfield Historical Society. In the 1970s she devoted much time to the resettlement of refugees from Southeast Asia in the Northfield community and organized volunteer tutors in English. In 2005 she helped create the book Cows in the Kitchen: An Anecdotal History of Food and Eating in Northfield, Minnesota, working with the Northfield Sesquicentennial Committee. She enjoyed reading and literary scholarship especially as a longtime member of the Margaret Evans Huntington Club. Joan had an extraordinary ability to adapt to life in different cultures and environments. She enjoyed travel, especially when Joan and Duane led the St. Olaf Global Semester. She took great pleasure in befriending numerous foreign students and visiting scholars at both Carleton and St. Olaf Colleges.

Joan is survived by her husband Duane; their three children, Ruth Khan and her husband Tanweer Khan, Colorado Springs, CO; Eric Olson and his wife Diana Denning, Newburyport, MA; Susanne Olson and her husband James O’Conor, Arlington, MA; and eight grandchildren, Adam and Sara Khan, Nathan, Anders and Ingrid Olson, Heidi Blanchet, Otto Aletter, and Caitlyn O’Conor. She is also survived by her sister, Ruth Goodwin, and sister-in-law Mildred Rafaj, and many nieces and nephews. She was predeceased by her parents, her brother Paul Rafaj, sisters Susan Rafaj, Grace Rafaj, and Ellen Vrudny, and brothers-in-law Walter Vrudny and Winslow William Goodwin.

The funeral service will be at 2:00 PM on Monday, November 2, with visitation at 1:00 PM at St. John’s Lutheran Church, 500 Third Street West, Northfield, Minnesota. Memorials are preferred to the Northfield Historical Society, the College History Fund at St. Olaf College, and the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.

Arrangements are with the Benson & Langehough Funeral Home.


  1. Brenda Berkman

    I was privileged to have Joan in my life for almost 45 years. When she was “inventing” the St. Olaf archivist role, in 1971 she took a chance on a young history student and hired me as her assistant. That began a life-long friendship wherein she was my mentor, enthusiastic supporter, dearest of friends and, even, my archivist. Years after I graduated, I discovered Joan had been collecting items related to my college years and onward for the St. Olaf archives.

    Joan provided me with a role model of a smart, funny, determined and courageous woman. She was utterly dedicated to St. Olaf. Every time we got together, we laughed. I was extremely lucky to have visited with Joan, Duane, Ruth and Eric only days before Joan’s death. Even in that difficult time, together we recounted stories of my college years and Joan was laughing. I got a chance to tell her how much I loved her one more time. I am sorry I cannot be with family and friends to celebrate her life. I will miss her terribly – she was and always will be family to me.

  2. Cindy Cordes-Eversole

    I’m very sorry to hear that your mom passed away. I didn’t know your parents well, but it was obvious to me that they were really special people. After reading her obituary, I really appreciate all that your mom did for St. Olaf and Northfield.

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