Friends and former colleagues remember Rich Olive

Former State Senator Rich Olive died of cancer yesterday at the age of 66. He represented Wright and Hamilton counties, along with some rural areas in Story and Webster counties, from 2007 through 2010. During that time, he chaired the Iowa Senate Government Oversight Committee.

Many Iowans who knew Olive through his work in the legislature agreed to share some of their memories with Bleeding Heartland readers.

Photo of Rich Olive at the capitol taken by Senate Democratic staff; used with permission.

Grant Woodard managed Olive’s 2006 campaign. Olive was a surprise winner that year, picking up an open seat by just 62 votes in an area that had long been represented by Republican Stew Iverson.

I am beside myself to hear of the passing of Rich Olive. In 2006, I served as Rich Olive’s campaign manager for his first state senate campaign. Of all of the experiences I have had in my life, having the honor to work with him is one of the greatest. If Rich had an enemy, I never knew of it and suspect he didn’t either. Seeing him interact with people was to see someone that genuinely enjoyed people and someone everyone enjoyed meeting. He was a very wealthy man in every sense and he knew it and didn’t take it for granted.

I enjoyed working on every political campaign I was involved with and every candidate I worked for, however, Rich was truly something special. We had a great crew in that election but it always amazed me to see the dozens of Rich’s friends that were willing to go above and beyond for him. They did that because they cared not about his political beliefs, but because they believed in him and trusted him.

After over a decade of working in politics, I encountered many people who had less than honorable reasons for entering the fray. With Rich, I never thought that for a second. He was everything that we should hope for in an elected official and more importantly in a human being. I certainly know where he is now.

Marian Tesdall Olive, Nicole Engelhardt and the rest of Olive of the Supporters of Rich for Senate are in my thoughts.

State Senator Jeff Danielson described Olive as “solid” and “a joy to work with,” and also noted,

Rich was Iowa nice before we knew what to call it. He taught me a lot about class and grace in stressful situations. A good and decent man who always made life fun.

Former State Senator Bill Heckroth remembers,

Rich Olive was easily the best friend I had coming out of my 4 years in the Iowa Senate. Most people know that he was very, very personable…easy to approach…etc. And, a lot of people will remember Rich as someone who loved to have a good time. And…they are all very accurate. BUT, what many people don’t know about Rich is that he was a “worry wart” when it came to legislation. And, I mean that in a very, very positive manner. Rich was so concerned about doing the right thing for his constituents and for the Citizens of Iowa, that every vote…no matter what the issue…was a struggle for him. He would pace the back of the Chambers trying to think about the pros and cons of the issue.

Back when Rich and I served together from 2007 – 2010, there were several Democrat Senators who were pretty “moderate”. Many of us had business backgrounds, etc. So, we didn’t necessarily support the pure “Democrat” agenda. BUT, we were strong Democrats in a strong Democrat Caucus. So, the real “debate” took place within the Caucus on many, many issues. Rich was always a thoughtful contributor to those discussions. And, as many people have commented since his death, Rich could work with almost anyone on an issue, regardless of political leanings.

I have said it more than once…and I will say it again…the beauty of the Iowa Legislature is that it is made up of ordinary Iowa Citizens with diverse “real life” backgrounds. Rich brought his economic development background, his insurance background, his real estate background AND his love for mankind to the Senate and used all of those characteristics to be an effective Senator. AND, as a result…he earned the respect of many, many people and the friendship of many, many more. He was…and always will be…a true “public servant”.

State Senator Rob Hogg recalled,

Rich and I entered the Senate together after the 2006 elections. During that campaign, we filmed our television commercials at the same time, which is how my then nine-year-old daughter came to have a starring role in Rich’s commercials. Rich loved people – his wife, his kids and grandkids, my daughter, really everyone. He was a good legislator and a superstar human being.

Brent Oleson, who was close to former Republican State Senator Mary Lundby, shared these thoughts:

Senator Rich Olive, like Senator Tom Hancock (also deceased) was part of the conservative Dem block of the Iowa Senate that gave & padded the Gronstal majority. Rich truly believed in working with both sides and was uncomfortable in looking at the other side as an enemy. He was probably even legitimately “naive” about politics, because he actually looked for everyone’s good side. He was universally liked by all, and supported by business & labor groups.

Side note: in his unsuccessful 2010 re-election campaign, Olive was one of very few Democrats to receive the endorsement of both the Iowa Farm Bureau and the Iowa Association of Business and Industry.

Former State Senator Tom Rielly remembered,

Senator Olive was an exceptional Senator. Hardworking, yet easy going. Engaging personality, with a big heart. Very bright, but down to earth at the same time, …. true statesmen. Most important, he was just a great guy!!

Rich was a joy to be around, with that great laugh, smiling eyes and genuine personality. Whether in a subcommittee, on the floor or at dinner, Rich always lit up the room and made life so much fun!! Fare thee well Senator Olive, you made a difference and will be missed!!

The same qualities struck State Senator Brian Schoenjahn:

Rich Olive was an honest straight shooter and his word was golden. His great sense of humor was always part of his wisdom. I was proud to have served with him.

State Senator Steve Sodders, who was first elected in 2008, remembers:

My heart aches. Sen. Rich Olive was a mentor to me when I first came into the Iowa Senate. He sat on my left side and Lt Gov. then Senator [Kim] Reynolds on my right. Rich was someone I could count on for questions or discussion on any number of issues. He was always around with a great laugh, kind word, hug or even the kiss on the cheek when he was particularly happy. He told me to take the job seriously but not to take myself too seriously. In other words, work hard for the district you represent but always be humble with the honor to serve. That is exactly how he did the job as a Senator. He will be missed but he and the advice he gave will not be.

Former Governor Chet Culver also remarked on those aspects of Olive’s personality:

“Senator Olive served with great distinction and he was a true public servant. Rich was always a lot of fun to be around, never took himself too seriously, and was respected from elected officials on both sides of the aisle.

“Rich Olive always put the interests of the state and his constituents before partisan politics, and he will definitely be missed. Mari and I will keep the Olive family in our thoughts and prayers during this difficult time.

Emily Shields, who was Governor Culver’s liaison to the Iowa Senate, recalled that Olive “was always very good to work with. Gregarious and funny.”

Former Iowa Democratic Party Chair Michael Kiernan remembered Olive as “A very nice man…always very kind…always humble….truly loved serving to make a difference.”

Peggy Huppert was the Iowa Director of Government Relations for the American Cancer Society during part of Olive’s term. She shared this story:

In 2009 we’d been working all session on the oral chemo parity bill, which would force insurers to reimburse for oral chemo on the same basis as IV chemo. Because it was a mandate, and because oral chemo can be very expensive, the insurers were vehemently opposed. We decided our best strategy was to get it in the Standings bill and have the support lined up in both houses to keep it in. Rich Olive was a key person. Because he was an insurance agent and pretty tight with the industry he was usually opposed to mandates. I talked to him several times and wasn’t sure I was getting anywhere. But I kept at it.

On what turned out to be the final days of the session, I had to be out of town. Before leaving I made one final plea with Rich in the Rotunda to support the measure. He said he was still undecided but would let me know what he’d do. When I work up that Sunday I had a voice mail message from Rich, sent very early that morning. He said I had persuaded him and he stood by us. He said (and I will never forget this) “Someday I might have cancer and might need this medication.”

The oral chemo provision stayed in the Standings bill and went to Gov. Culver, who despite intense pressure did not line item veto it, so it became law. Hundreds if not thousands of Iowa cancer patients have benefited from it since then. I don’t know if Rich was one, but he helped make it happen. He was a gentleman and a man of his word.

UPDATE: Former State Senator Frank Wood served with Olive in 2007 and 2008.

Richie was one of the best legislators that I had the privilege to work with in the Iowa Senate. Even for two years, I learned quickly to lean on Rich on certain areas for advice and for guidance. We would work long hours and several to help make things better for the people of Iowa. Richie would always be up to go sailing with the Captain along with several of our Legislator friends. He will be missed.

Senate President Pam Jochum commented,

Rich was not only a strong advocate for small town Iowa, especially his beloved Story City, he was also a man who loved living. His sense of humor, spontaneity, and laughter often put life back into perspective. He will be missed.

State Senator Herman Quirmbach added,

Rich Olive was a dear friend and a great colleague. He had a wonderful sense of humor and made friends with everybody. He was a very effective voice for small business and smaller communities. He won in a district that is difficult for Democrats because he was such a good fit for the community and had a respected record in local projects.
The four years he served were the most productive years for the Iowa Legislature since the 1960s: gay rights, anti-bullying, same-day voter registration, decent funding for education, and many other things. He will be missed.

From State Senator Bob Dvorsky:

Rich Olive was a true citizen/ Legislator. He was a small Businessman who really cared about his beloved Story City area. He did what he thought was best for his constituency and not the party line. The Rich Olive Family is a great Iowa family. We will all miss Sen Olive.

From State Senator Amanda Ragan:

He was great to work with and his sharp wit was memorable. He always had a positive attitude for the state and his district. He will be missed.

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