2011-02-24 / News

Two generations of service in ‘God’s country’

By Geoff Campbell

The story that follows pulls at just one of the threads in Linnea Petersen’s tapestry. It’s the story of two women, a generation apart. It’s a story of a mother and her daughter connected by the love for each other and for this island – “God’s country” – as Linnea’s mother called it.

That love has resulted in lives lived in service, to the island and to its people.

Linnea’s mother, Shirley Didsbury, was born in the white house on the corner of Washington

Street and Narragansett Avenue on April 9, 1922.

During World War II, Shirley played piano at the United Services Organization in Jamestown – now the recreation center – for some of the 5,000 soldiers stationed on the island.

At the end of the war she married Norman Olson who had been stationed in the Pacific during the war. A year later their only child Linnea was born – the family made their home on Howland Avenue and later moved to Avenue B.

Linnea’s mother’s story is a snapshot of political, economic and cultural landscape during the 1950s and 1960s in small-town America. In some ways Shirley’s story would remain culturally relevant for the next generation as well. In short, she was ahead of her time.

In 1950, at the age of 28, Shirley Didsbury Olson ran for and was elected to the office of tax collector in Jamestown. Her daughter Linnea was 4 years old. It would be a position that Shirley would hold for six years until losing re-election in 1956 by two votes.

Shirley loved to fish. Linnea said that her mother would put her in the car, often with a friend or two, and take the kids fishing at Beavertail. Shirley would set the kids to play in the tidal pools with green crabs, meanwhile, with half a crab on the line, Shirley was angling for Blackfish.

Fishing off the rocks at Beavertail was prevented for a time in the late 1950s, when the Army reclaimed control of what is now the Beavertail Sate Park. A military guard was stationed at the entrance to the grounds.

Many weekends that soldier or his counterpart was greeted by Shirley, who in a repeated act of civil disobedience, drove up to the gate, asked if she could go fishing and when told no, she would complete a tedious threepoint turn and drive away.

In 1956, following her tenure as the town’s tax collector, Shirley joined the Industrial National Bank in an off-island branch; there were no banks on the island at the time.

Within two years of joining the bank, Shirley had persuaded the higher-ups that Jamestown’s demographics could support a bank branch. By the end of 1958, Industrial National Bank had constructed a banking facility on the site of the old Santos market, where it still sits as a Bank of America branch.

Convinced that Jamestowners needed a bank manager who they could trust and with whom they were comfortable, Industrial placed Olson as the new branch’s manager today.

According to Petersen, her mother understood that the “only product a bank sells is service.”

Olson hired a diverse staff of predominantly islanders dedicated to providing that service. Many of them were life-long islanders, according to Petersen. Customers walked more easily into a bank where the staff knew the patrons from church, the neighborhood or the local market.

The addition of a bank to the commercial landscape meant that money which had been previously “kept under the mattress,” Petersen said, because of the inconvenience of banking offisland, was now being deposited at Industrial just as the nation was entering a decade of marked prosperity.

Shirley managed the bank until her sudden and unexpected death at the age of 48 in 1970, possibly the result of an undetected virus, according to Linnea.

The appreciation of place, the beauty of the island and the community minded lets-get-it-done attitude did not skip a generation. What was true of Linnea’s mother has proven to be true for Linnea as well.

Chairing the Jamestown School Committee from 1981 to 1992 was among the variety of family and community roles that Linnea has fulfilled over her lifetime. She said that she first ran for the office because she wanted to help “set policy.” She added that she ended up fixing leaking roofs and replacing chronically clogged toilets.

Clearly understating her impact, Petersen ran the School Committee when the Committee first considered an addition to Lawn Avenue Avenue.

The building had reached a crossroads, it was crowded, the internal walls had been removed in part to deal with the overcrowding and in part as a response to an educational fad.

The property was town owned and therefore an archaeological survey was required. As a result, Petersen inadvertently found her self in the midst of the discovery of the “largest Indian burial ground on the eastern seaboard,” she said.

Ultimately, the new construction of the Melrose Avenue School was completed as were the renovations of the Lawn Avenue School along with many other school improvement initiatives.

Petersen has been a Jamestown Historical Society director and leader for the past 30 years, including 17 years as treasurer. Currently, she is the president of the historical society. The society has grown and flourished in the many years that it has benefited from her leadership.

Not likely to slow down, Linnea’s service to the island continues to demonstrate a love of the place her mother called “God’s country.”

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