Sheila Olsen, a longtime pillar of the local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the state Republican Party, died of illness Sunday morning at age 79.
“She always found the joy and the positive side of things,” said Maria Nate, her daughter. “Her community involvement knew no bounds. She loved everyone.
“She was very devoted to her family, to her religion and to serving.”
“Sheila Olsen is a wonderful example of someone who was always … engaged in good causes,” said Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, her son-in-law. “She leaves a powerful legacy of community service, loving parenting and being an awesome grandmother.”
Olsen gave a lifetime of service to the community despite progressive disability. Maria Nate said it’s been more than a half-century since Olsen was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a degenerative nerve disease that left her bound to a motorized scooter. Olsen was diagnosed before Maria Nate, her fifth child, was born. Maria Nate said her mother was told she could not expect to have another child.
She had five more.
Olsen was active in her church and in the Republican Party throughout her life.
Doug Nelson, area spokesman for the LDS church, said Olsen fulfilled a large number of callings with her church, acting for more than two decades as a media representative, in services for the poor and in interfaith outreach. She said Olsen “pioneered” outreach to other religious organizations and charitable groups with a particular focus on resisting discrimination.
“She was particularly known for extending the church’s involvement in human care needs,” Nelson said.
Olsen served as vice president of the Idaho Commission on Human Rights, which is charged with enforcing state anti-discrimination laws. She was unanimously confirmed by the Senate for reappointment last week.
Brian Scigliano, president of the Human Rights Commission, said Olsen was dedicated to the work.
“She served with compassion and kindness in the complex cases brought before the commission,” he said.
Olsen was also a longtime Republican Party activist. Her husband, Dennis Olsen, who died in 1985, served as chairman of the Idaho Republican Party.
Ann Rydalch, chairwoman of Region 7 of the Idaho GOP, said Olsen made tremendous contributions to the party, serving as a trusted advisor to many elected officials.
“She was a stalwart of fairness and goodness,” Rydalch said. “My heart is sad that this has happened.”
Idaho Falls Mayor Rebecca Casper said Olsen “took me under her wing in so many ways,” helping to launch her career in public service.
“We’ve lost a great leader,” she said.
U.S. Attorney Bart Davis, who long served as the state Senate Majority Leader, said he looked up to Olsen.
“I couldn’t respect a human being more than I did Sheila Olsen,” Davis said. “She demonstrated civility in the public square, and I feel honored to have known her and called her my friend. I strongly desire to be more like her in public conversation.”
Maria Nate said three viewings are being planned to accommodate the large number of people who wish to pay their respects.
Reporter Bryan Clark can be reached at 208-542-6751.