John Olson, Who Brought Whelen Engineering Plant to Charlestown, Dies at 83 

  • John F. Olson. (Courtesy photograph) courtesy photograph

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 8/3/2018 11:03:15 AM
Modified: 8/3/2018 11:55:33 PM

Charlestown — John F. Olson, the former president and CEO of Whelen Engineering who helped make the manufacturer of safety lights and sirens into a major employer in Sullivan County and was himself a significant benefactor in the state, died on Thursday. He was 83.

“He was extremely generous and has been generous to the entire town, residents and his employees,” former Charlestown Planning and Zoning Administrator Dave Edkins said.

“He was always very generous but never wanted recognition for it,” Selectman Steve Neill said. “This is going to be a big loss for the town.”

Olson was the executive vice president of Whelen at the time of his death and formerly served as president and CEO. A native of Connecticut, where Whelen is headquartered, Olson was a graduate of the University of New Hampshire and joined the company in 1959 in Chester, Conn. The company designs and manufactures emergency warning products and related products for the aviation, automotive and mass notification industries.

Jim Roche, president of the New Hampshire Business and Industry Association, said Olson brought a lot of energy and ideas to the industry group.

“Not only was he an ardent supporter of manufacturing but he orchestrated the growth of Whelen and put Charlestown on the manufacturing map,” Roche said on Friday. “He was an incredibly strong advocate for manufacturing in New Hampshire.”

According to the company, which issued a news release announcing Olson’s death, he helped develop the company’s strobe technology in the 1960s, lightbar design in the 1970s and LED advancement in the 2000s.

Olson was named company president in 1976 and about 10 years later, opened a manufacturing facility in Charlestown, which has become a sprawling complex off Route 12, employing 1,100 workers.

“Charlestown’s economy is driven by Whelen and John Olson,” said Albert St. Pierre of St. Pierre Sand and Gravel, who had known Olson for years.

Olson had a weekend home in Saxtons River, Vt., which is how Charlestown came on his radar. He began renting a small building around 1980 off Lovers Lane, not far from where Whelen currently is located, according to Norm Beaudry, a friend from Charlestown.

“He started with 10 employees and today Whelen is about 550,000 square feet with more than 1,000 employees,” said Beaudry, of Beaudry Construction.

“We used to have coffee together most every Sunday,” Beaudry said. “We discussed a lot of things and he was so knowledgeable. I never knew someone who knew so much about so many things.”

Edkins, the former planning and zoning administrator, often worked with Olson as they went over site plans whenever Olson expanded Whelen with new buildings.

“He was always very trustworthy and honest,” said Edkins, who served the town for more than 18 year and remembers Whelen occupying just one building when he arrived. “John always did what he said he would do.”

But it was his generosity that stood out.

Olson donated more than $5 million to UNH, his alma mater, in support of advanced manufacturing and the John Olson Advanced Manufacturing Center for mechanical engineering at UNH is named in his honor.

“John was a pioneer in advanced manufacturing and a leader in advocating for education that includes hands on experiences with practical industrial problems,” Wayne E. Jones, interim provost at UNH, said in a statement on Olson’s death. “His legacy in the Olson Center for Advanced Manufacturing at the University of New Hampshire brings together his vision of bringing companies together with advanced student learning and practical training with leading edge technology.”

Locally, he was a willing supporter of any number of causes, many of which people probably aren’t aware as he resisted recognition, say those who knew him.

“He didn’t want his name in lights,” said Tim Ford, CEO of Springfield Medical Care Systems, which owns the Charlestown Health Center and other health care facilities, including Springfield Hospital.

The new health center on Route 12, not far from Whelen’s site, is another symbol of Olson’s generosity.

“He made a significant contribution to relocate the building to the present site (from Main Street,)” Ford said. “John has been a champion for health care in the community and for his employees with wellness and prevention.”

St. Pierre, who has served on different charitable organizations in Charlestown, recalled contacting Olson when he was with the Rotary Club and was seeking donations for renovations to the old town hall.

“Before I finished asking, he said, ‘Will $1,000 help?’ ” St. Pierre said.

Olson regularly donated emergency lights to outfit town vehicles and donated vehicles as well, including SUVs, to the police department and also contributed to the construction of the Edgar May Recreation Center in Springfield, Vt. The senior center on Old Springfield Road once was home to a business Olson bought and he later donated the building for the center.

BIA President Roche summed up Olson, who received the BIA’s Lifetime Achievement Award, this way. “Very direct, very loyal, incredibly smart and a big heart. He did not suffer fools lightly. John was just a really decent guy. He will be missed.”

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at

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