LAKE PARK, Minn. — It wasn’t love at first sight.
Janet Smith was a young occupational therapist who needed a standing table for a student with spina bifida at Ulen-Hitterdal high school. Rick Olson was the 30-year-old shop teacher in Ulen who was recruited to help build the table.
They needed to work together to find a sturdy solution that worked for her student. "I went in and met him and he was so bossy," she says, turning to grin at her husband during a Zoom call. “He was kind of irritating.”
Later, when a colleague asked Janet if she’d met the shop teacher, she joked: “Yeah, I pity his poor wife.”
Little did she realize Rick was actually not married or that her words would take on a special irony within a year.
After they finished the project together, Rick surprised Janet by casually mentioning she owed him a beer. She found herself saying yes. “He was kind of intriguing,” she says now. “He had the cutest smile and, oh, those blue eyes? How could you not?”
This led to a meal at Duane’s Pizza in Moorhead, during which Janet’s feelings toward the tall, handsome bachelor warmed considerably.
They started dating in March of 1980, got engaged in August, and were married less than a year later on Valentine’s Day.
That was 40 years ago. They moved onto the Olson family’s century farm between Lake Park and Hawley, continued their careers, raised four kids and looked forward to their roles as doting grandparents.
But there was no comfortable and healthy retirement ahead. In 2017, after battling a baffling health condition for six years, Rick suffered a massive stroke.
Once a strapping and healthy fisherman and hunter, Rick now had to rely on his wife for everything. The stroke left him paralyzed and with very limited language.
But by then, the Olsons had been married 36 years, and had built a sturdy foundation of caring, understanding and support. Today, Janet sits nestled up against her husband's wheelchair, occasionally taking his hand and always working to include him in conversations.
She says that, through it all, the true essence of her husband never left. Even if his outer shell changed, he has the same heart, the same impish sense of humor, the same optimism. This is Rick. Her Rick.
And in many ways, this is when the real love story began.
‘From this day forward’
After the two started dating that spring of 1980, it didn’t take long to realize they belonged together.
They shared similar values: a strong faith, a good work ethic and a healthy sense of humor. When asked when she knew Rick was the one, her husband shakes with laughter.
“He has a really good sense of humor,” explains Janet, with a grin. “I think I knew like after a month, because I saw his spirit and we just clicked.”
Rick had studied biology in college, and always maintained an interest in the environment, the cleanliness of the lake on his farmland and anything to do with nature. Even his wedding proposal took place amid the birds and bees. The couple were walking a nature trail by a lake by Canora, Saskatchewan, where Rick was enthusiastically pointing out examples of the local insect population. Janet, the dutiful girlfriend, feigned enthusiasm. “And then he turns really red and says, ‘You wouldn’t want to marry me, would ya?’” she recalls, laughing.
She wasn’t too “bugged” by the unconventional proposal. She said yes.
They were married six months later in Zion Lutheran Church in Detroit Lakes on an uncommonly warm Feb. 14. Janet wore her mother’s lace wedding gown and carried a bouquet of carnations and roses in pink, mauve and cream. Rick looked dashing in his bow tie and gray tuxedo.
The choice of Valentine’s Day for a wedding was a romantic one, although Janet chose it for more practical reasons. She knew a February wedding wouldn’t interfere with Rick’s farming schedule. And it made sense to combine their wedding anniversary with Cupid’s best-known holiday.
“I thought that then he wouldn’t forget it,” she says.
‘To love and to cherish’
They moved to the “little house” on the Olson family farm, which was located on the same farmstead with Rick’s parents' home. Then came baby — and more babies. They would have four kids — Amanda, Carrie, Emma and Joey — in the space of five years.
The kids would grow up in the country much like their dad did, helping out with chores like haying and rock picking.
Rick would move from teaching to working as a dairy diagnostic coordinator, helping dairy farmers transition to organic. He also continued farming part time. Janet became an occupational therapist with the Moorhead School District, ultimately working in education for 31 years before retiring in 2013.
They sent the kids off to school and cheered for them as they made their way in the world. Amanda and Carrie became college professors, Emma became a lawyer and Joey became a writer and improv comic. The kids married and started having babies.
It was a good life.
‘In sickness and in health’
In 2011, Rick fell while ice fishing and ended up in the hospital with a head injury. Over time, Janet’s trained eye noticed her husband had difficulty walking, with visible spasticity, shuffling and tripping. The Olsons tried alternative approaches and visited doctors, but nothing seemed to help.
In 2014, a neurologist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., performed a surgery to remove vertebral bone in efforts to improve Rick’s gait. Doctors also diagnosed him with hereditary spastic paraplegia, which is a group of inherited disorders characterized by progressive weakness and stiffness of the legs. The condition typically worsens until the individual needs to use a walker, cane or wheelchair.
Rick, who had been adopted, would learn he inherited the condition from his birth mother.
Intensive therapy followed. Rick stopped farming and began renting out his land.
But even tougher times were ahead.
‘For better or for worse’
It was Father’s Day weekend in 2017 when the Olsons started out on a car trip to Omaha to see their daughter Carrie's new home and to enjoy a family gathering.
They were anxious to get there, as a Rick favorite, barbecued ribs, were on the menu. But by the time they pulled into Carrie's garage, Rick had started speaking nonsensically. Janet yelled at the kids to call 911 and he was immediately taken by ambulance to the hospital.
Even amid the chaos and stress, Rick’s trademark humor popped up. “Why don’t you just wait?” he told the paramedics. “I need my ribs.”
The stroke was massive, affecting one-third of his brain. His language was not only affected, but he also struggled with getting enough breath so he could speak up. Rick would spend the next 42 days in the hospital, battling infections and complications. That was followed by an extended stay in the transitional care unit at Ecumen Assisted Living in Detroit Lakes.
It would be five months before the Olsons could move back to the farm. They’ve continued therapy with Rick, and are excited about learning a new high-tech system that will allow Rick to communicate by using eye movements. Rick made sure the communication board would include a button that says: “Settle down, Janet.”
Janet says she’s amazed at the extent to which their community and church have supported them.
Rick is still included in the men’s Bible study at their church, thanks to Zoom. Longtime hunting friends still hunt on their land, and drop by to check on Rick. For the past three years, Rich Veit, the father of one of their son’s friends, has come to their house several times a week to read books on history and science to Rick.
“There are a lot of people like that,” says Janet, looking genuinely moved by the community’s generosity. “Sometimes, after something like this happens, people go away because they don’t know what to do with you. But we have so many friends. He has so many guy friends who will come and hang with him and just be. I don’t know how we would do it without them.”
When the congregation of their church, Eksjo Lutheran, approached the Olsons about doing a benefit, Janet initially balked. “It was so hard to take help,” she says. “I hated it.”
But then she realized how much it helps people to be able to lend a hand. “Maybe that’s what’s helped me most, is accepting help. To think taking help means you’re weak, it isn’t. To accept help helps everybody,” she says.
Diane Midthune, a longtime family friend who attended high school with Rick at Lake Park, describes the couple as a “shining beacon” of love, loyalty and sacrifice.
“When Rick’s medical issues began a few years ago, that only strengthened their commitment to their marriage. We, their friends, considered them an absolutely amazing, faith-filled couple who daily live their love for each other.”
Midthune says the couple’s devotion to each other is exemplified in a Bible verse inscribed on a plaque in their home. Paraphrasing Psalm 16:8, it reads: “We set the Lord always before us … we shall not be shaken.”
‘And as long as we both shall live.’
Ever since Rick returned to the farm, he’s told Janet he wants a dock. He wanted them to fish again, like they had when they were dating and still had a whole life together before them. Last summer, she found a way to get an accessible dock placed on their lake, complete with a boardwalk for Rick’s chair. By mid-July, the couple could be found out on the dock every day, fishing for sunnies, perch and walleye. “The lake is a really important part of his spirit,” she says.
She is the first to admit that their new life hasn’t been easy, and there have been plenty of tears. Yet they somehow manage to share a sense of real love, acceptance and gratitude that has helped them weather the hardest of days.
“The saying we came up with is, ‘This is us now, and we will be grateful,’” Janet says.
Although Janet remains his full-time caregiver, she doesn’t really like that word. She says it makes her feel less like a wife and doesn’t convey how much love Rick gives back to her. She prefers the term, “lovegiver.”
She’s also learned not to ignore or deny those feelings of grief or sadness. “Those are part of me,” she says. “Those are part of us. And we need just to greet them and think, ‘What do we need to learn from them?’”
Along with the crying, there's laughter and joy, too.
This weekend, they will celebrate 40 years of love and devotion with a steak dinner, thoughtfully provided by friends, and a bottle of wine from Janet’s brother. They’ll also open the gift sent to them by their kids.
Janet, who says she’s been bugging Rick to renew their wedding vows for a while, hopes they will do just that in exactly six months, when she’s planning a big picnic with family and friends.
“I don’t know how it is that we both wake up with joy every morning, but we do. And that to me is prayers and faith and God. And him,” she says, gesturing to her husband. “Because I wake up and he’s in a lot of pain too, but there’s that smile and those blue eyes."
Words aren't easy for Rick, but there’s little doubt of his love for his wife. Recently, a friend asked Rick what he believed his greatest gift was.
He responded with one word.