Sunday, October 15, 2006

Sharon Olson-Hansen

We say goodbye to a dear colleague

It may seem greedy to complain that we had only a year to bid farewell to Sharon, but I'm going to complain anyway. We have been robbed of a dear friend, a cherished colleague, and a great teacher. We are weakened in every way by her loss. The entire mathematics department—the whole college—is in mourning. I can scarcely even begin to imagine the magnitude of the grief among her family members.

Sharon came to us in the fall of 1988 with a full-time faculty appointment for one semester. I knew what she was going through, because I had joined the ARC faculty one year earlier under the same circumstances. When I accepted my appointment, with no guarantee of a subsequent assignment, I had to give up the security of my civil service position in the State Treasurer's Office in a gamble that it would all work out. Sharon made a similar decision about her position as a senior faculty member at Del Campo High School: her seniority and her priority for the best teaching assignments were surrendered when she took the temporary ARC job.

When Sharon arrived, I had just won my wager and was beginning a new tenure-track appointment. She was not quite as lucky. There was no assignment available for her when her fall semester appointment expired. Sharon was reduced to a part-time teaching position during the spring, but she hung in there, hoping that a new opportunity would present itself for fall. Fortunately, new positions were approved for fall semester for the math department and we snatched her up for a full-time appointment. It has always been a particular point of pride with me that I was on the hiring committee that sent Sharon's name to the college president as a finalist for a permanent faculty position. It was one of the best decisions we ever made.

During her years of full-time service on the ARC math faculty, 1989-2005, Sharon demonstrated how important one determined and dedicated person can be even in a large organization. She was a tireless worker on behalf of her colleagues and her students. She served as department chair, a position with plenty of responsibilities and minimal benefits, requiring both an attentive ear and diplomatic skills. Her success in the position was so great that people were always trying to talk her into a second term, but she wisely resisted. Besides, she was busy with her work on the college's facilities, making sure that our planning process was fully informed of the practical needs of instructors and students, the people who actually occupied and used those facilities. Sharon chaired the committee that drafted the facilities chapter of the college's accreditation self-study, making a significant contribution to the excellent evaluation ARC later received from the visiting accreditation team.

Sharon was an early supporter of our highly speculative plan to put Howard Hall in our educational master plan, back in those days when no such building was even on the drawing board. When the college administration revealed an initiative to construct a new faculty office building on campus, we were first in line with our documented need for a new facility. (And, yes, we did succeed in getting it named “Howard Hall,” after our late dean and vice president of instruction.) We're going to miss having Sharon's help in facilities planning as the renovation of the campus center looms on the horizon, but we'll do our best to remember her lessons and dedication. It will be so much more difficult without her.

Some of Sharon's students planned to try to get Sharon the Instructor of the Year award during the 2005-06 school year. They were going against the odds, of course, nominating an instructor who was gone from the campus and fated never to return, but it was a noble and kind gesture by students who were devoted to their teacher. In truth, it should have been only a matter of time before Sharon was properly recognized as one of the college's most skilled and thoughtful instructors. The loss to our students is as great as the loss to colleagues and campus. One of our small comforts is the thought that Sharon's students are part of her legacy, and their experiences with her will last throughout their lives.

The spring of 2005 was difficult for Sharon. She never felt entirely well and the cause was eventually traced by her doctors to a gall bladder problem. Or so they thought. She had the gall bladder removed at the end of the school year and returned to the classroom for the 2005 summer session, but her problems continued. The doctors began to suspect liver problems. She turned her summer session class over to a substitute and continued her search for a definitive diagnosis and treatment. On June 29, I ran into Sharon and her son Ryan at a local Davis restaurant and she invited me to join them for lunch. She was in a festive mood, telling me they had just received good news on her prognosis: the liver problem was manageable and she was greatly relieved. Later she told me that false hope had given her and her family their happiest day after weeks of worry.

Immediately thereafter she learned the doctors had been wrong in their optimistic assessment. Sharon composed a message to her math department colleagues, sharing the bad news. We were all aghast to learn she had inoperable pancreatic cancer, but she was determined to fight it long enough to see her sons graduate from school: Colin from San Diego State in December and Ryan from Da Vinci High School in June. Despite the long odds, she succeeded, as those who knew her always believed she would.

Let me leave the last word to Sharon herself, from her message to her colleagues back in July 2005:

I want you all to know, that I have always been so proud to be a part of this department. This is not some PR statement. I am always bragging about what a great job I have and what fascinating people I work with from faculty, to clerical and management staff, and all the other support staff—tutors, IA's, computer techs, ... Teaching gave me a sense of satisfaction that I am desperately going to miss. I loved those “Ohhhhh!” moments from students, and I told them that those were what I went into teaching for. I will miss the camaraderie in the halls, the razzing at department meetings, Brother Oliver's on Fridays, department parties, walking to class with whoever, my new little decorated office with a clean bathroom down the hall!, and so much more. You have been my family for 17 years, and I will miss all of you. But I know you will continue to make this department one of the best places for students to come and learn what we all know is the beauty of math.

I am forever thankful to have been a part of that, and I love you all dearly.



Thom Puckett said...

Sharon was a very special lady. She was one of only a few people in my life who truely touched my heart. I can't believe she is gone. She made working here a joy throughout all the good and bad times. I can never express how much I will miss her.

Anonymous said...

What a lovely tribute to Sharon.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Mr. Barcellos, for such a touching tribute to Sharon. It's comforting to know that her ARC "family" discovered what her real family always knew - that she truly was a very special person who is and will be greatly missed. Hopefully, the scholarship established at ARC in her name will help many future students realize the beauty of math and keep the memory of Sharon alive at ARC.

Brian Stover said...

Oh Sharon! You will be missed! I will never forget how much you changed my life, you touched my heart and you will always have a place in it. I remember how pretty you were, with your elegant jewelry and such class and prestige. I remember how we always loved the days we got to play with geo boards and tan grams! You really inspired me to become the best person I could, and at the lowest point in my life, you gave me a shining and promising future! You really motivated me and pushed me to do my best, and I will always be appreciative of that! The world wasn't ready for your departure, but you are going to continue inspiring people where you are now! I will see you one day again and give you a big hug when I do!!!!!! Much love,

~Brian :)