Theatre arts sophomore Brett Olson was remembered Monday night, as hundreds of family members, friends and fraternity brothers gathered for a memorial service and candlelight vigil.
Olson was reported missing Sept. 3 after spending Labor Day weekend in Chico, Calif. with friends for the annual Labor Day Float down the Sacramento River. At the conclusion of a search that captivated the state, with more than 90,000 people joining the Facebook group “Let’s Bring Brett Home“, Olson’s body was found in the Sacramento River on Sunday, Sept. 9.
Students requested the memorial service, held in the University Union Plaza and organized by Student Life and Leadership, as a way to honor Olson’s memory for those who were unable to attend the vigil in Olson’s hometown of Lafayette, Student Life and Leadership Director Stephan Lamb said.
“It’s really about students celebrating other students’ lives,” Lamb said.
Olson’s death came two weeks after Cal Poly lost another student, physics senior Jacob Van Staaveren. Van Staaveren died after colliding with a truck while skateboarding.
Though Van Staaveren has not had a memorial service at Cal Poly, one is in the works with the physics department, Lamb said.
Olson’s service preceded Van Staaveren’s simply because there was a large student body push for the service, and the search for and death of Olson was more widely publicized, Lamb said.
“It’s not an issue of whether the death and loss of one student is more important than the other,” Lamb said.
Lamb collaborated with Associated Students, Inc. (ASI) President Katie Morrow, Olson’s fraternity Pi Kappa Alpha and Olson’s friends and family in Lafayette to create a memorial service that was similar to the first, incorporating a slideshow and poem in both, Lamb said.
Friends, family, Cal Poly staff and faculty and Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong spoke about Olson’s life and time at Cal Poly. All of the input helped create a well-rounded picture of Olson’s life and impact on people, Lamb said.
“Brett became multidimensional,” Lamb said. “He wasn’t just the face on the screen.”
Olson was not just a student, but also a member of the fraternity Pi Kappa Alpha, as well as part of the Cal Poly family, Armstrong said during his speech opening the memorial service.
“You have lost a dear, dear son and brother,” Armstrong said to Olson’s family members, who were in attendance. “The Cal Poly family, the brothers of Pi Kappa Alpha have all lost a dear brother and son.”
Michael Olson, Brett’s father, also spoke to the crowd, sharing his memories of Olson as a child, and the painful week he spent trying to find his son.
The outpouring of support from both friends and strangers helped buoy the spirits of the families while their son was missing, Michael said.
He told those at the memorial service of how he visited the campus of California State University, Chico, passing out fliers with Olson’s description to anyone who would take one. Every student accepted the flier, Michael said at the memorial service.
“All of this, including all of the positive energy that we felt from people calling and sending emails, kept us alive, gave us hope,” Michael said in his speech.
Afterward, Michael told Mustang Daily about Olson’s first day at Cal Poly, when Olson locked himself out of his sixth story room while moving in. While Michael stressed, Olson told his father not to worry; someone else was bound to help them.
“He said, ‘It’s not bad, Dad. Somebody else will have a key,’” Michael said.
Olson’s fraternity brothers also shared their own memories of the Pi Kappa Alpha member, and dressed in formalwear to honor him.
In the wake of Olson’s death, the group is struggling to cope, Pi Kappa Alpha member and agricultural science senior Thomas Maher said.
“It’s obviously really difficult because we’re all such close friends with him,” Maher said.
Though Pi Kappa Alpha and friends of Olson’s are struggling with “a lot emotions,” as Maher said, director of Front Porch Campus Ministry Sada Andrews, who spoke briefly at the service, hopes people will pull something positive from the experience.
“Know first that it’s okay. It’s okay to feel that way,” Andrews said. “Sadness is not something that we avoid. It’s something we grow through.”
Grief helps remind people of good things, and treasure people and experiences, Andrews said.
Though she never knew Olson personally, Andrews was deeply moved by the search for the Cal Poly student, and contacted a church in Olson’s hometown of Lafayette to assist in the memorial service Monday night.
“Brett’s death brought together such a crazy group of people,” Andrews said.
Video by Carly Rickards.