Olness remembered as brilliant scientist, education advocate
He did what he loved, and was loved for it.
John William Olness, a nuclear physicist and a Long Island resident since 1961, died on Feb. 15 at the age of 85.
Olness is survived by his wife Margaret, their sons Robert, Richard, Frederick and Christopher and their daughter Kristin.
“He was a creative parent,” son Richard said in a phone interview. “I wouldn’t trade him for the world.”
Olness was born in 1929, in Saskatchewan, Canada, while his father was teaching at a junior college. The family returned to their farm in northern Minnesota when John was young, and that is where he grew up.
Olness received a doctorate in nuclear physics from Duke University in 1957 where he met Margaret. He moved to Long Island from Dayton, Ohio, in 1961, then he began his career at Brookhaven National Laboratory in 1963 where he stayed until his retirement in 2000 after 37 years of service. John and Margaret married in 1958 and moved to Stony Brook in 1968.
“He got to do what he wanted,” Margaret said in a phone interview. “He was one of the lucky people who loved what he did for a living. You can’t beat that.”
“John worked with many of the visiting scientists who came to BNL to use the facilities, including Sir Denys Wilkinson (Oxford University), D. Allan Bromley (Yale and, later, science adviser to President George H.W. Bush) and future Space Shuttle astronaut Joseph Allen,” son Robert said of his father’s time at BNL, in an email.
Margaret identified her husband’s passions as physics first and music second.
In his leisure time Olness was a Little League baseball coach; and a founding member and trombone player with the Memories of Swing, a big band that performed around Long Island. He also served as a vice president of the Three Village school board in 1975-76. Kristin said that his desire to be on the school board was in large part to fight for the budgets of the music, sports and arts programs that are seemingly always the first to go when money gets thin.
Olness loved baseball, tennis and basketball, and often spent hours on the phone discussing the Detroit Tigers baseball team with his father, who lived in Michigan. He also played football in high school and college, Margaret said.
Olness was a supportive father and husband, according to Margaret. Their children have gone on to enjoy rewarding careers in wide-ranging walks of life, thanks in no small part to that parental support.
Frederick is a professor and physics department chair at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas; Robert is a major in the Army Reserve, awaiting his next deployment; Kristin has just finished a year on Broadway in “Cabaret,” and was also a member of the cast in the show’s 1998 revival; Richard is an actuary for the Department of Defense; and Christopher is a professional trombonist on Broadway currently playing in “On the Town,” the hit musical comedy.
“Dad put emphasis on education, and he and Mom supported us in exploring the arts and recreational sports,” Richard said in an email. “And in the later years, he encouraged us each to find a career we would enjoy.”
A memorial service will be held for John Olness on Thursday, July 2, at Setauket Presbyterian Church.