Colleagues, students and friends are mourning Joel Olson, a popular political science professor at Northern Arizona University who died this week while working abroad.

Details on his death have not been released. Olson was said by friends to be about 45 years old.

Olson was spending the spring as a visiting faculty member at the University of Alicante in Spain. He gave a lecture at the University of Nottingham in Nottingham, England on Wednesday evening and died in Britain before returning to Spain.

On Thursday evening, the posts on his Facebook wall turned to shock, grief, support and admiration.

Word quickly came back to his NAU peers -- in Flagstaff, or, like colleague Fred Solop, in Argentina.

Solop, also a political science professor, was a co-worker and for a time was Olson's department chair. Solop said Olson encouraged critical thought and engagement in his students.

"He was very passionate about life," Solop said by phone Friday from Buenos Aires, where he is spending part of his sabbatical. "He was passionate about his family, he was passionate about politics, he was passionate about teaching."


Olson was an academic, activist and family man. He was an associate professor at NAU with scholarly interests in political theory, race and ethnicity, and social movements. His research focused on race and democracy, and fanaticism, or extremism. He had been at NAU since 2003.

He won the Outstanding Teaching Award for the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences in 2004-2005. Last fall, he taught an undergraduate course in classical and medieval political thought and a graduate course in critical race theory. He was teaching courses on extremism and the West and contemporary Western political thought while in Spain through the University Studies Abroad Consortium.

Olson was active with grassroots groups like the Repeal Coalition -- an organization that seeks the repeal of laws that target immigrants and uses the slogan "Fight for freedom to live, love and work anywhere you please." He spoke out critically on subjects like SB1070, Arizona's anti-illegal immigration law.

Last fall, he and other Repeal Coalition members accompanied workers who had been fired from Flagstaff's Little America hotel for not being able to provide satisfactory documentation of legal residency in a request for severance packages.

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"Joel was a colleague of great kindness and decency; a teacher of unquenchable passion and inspiration; a foremost scholar of critical race studies; and an eloquent spokesman for the oppressed. Above all, he was a loving husband and father, and a much-loved brother and son," read a statement by NAU's Department of Politics & International Affairs. "While his loss will be forever, the example of his life will live on. Whether one knew him as a friend or as a teacher, he will always be our role model for a life fully and nobly lived."


Online memorials were going strong Friday. Friends and students took to the "Remembering Joel Olson" Facebook page in addition to his personal page to eulogize the professor:

-- Kara Stone: "No words can express just how deeply Joel's loss is felt by all who knew him. He was a fantastic person to work with, always kind and thoughtful and fair-minded. His love for his beautiful family was evident to everyone around him. And his passion for his job is what makes him a legend at NAU."

-- Courtney Bellio: "He was the best professor I've had in college. He was the reason I majored in political science, and he inspired me every day in class."

-- Adrienne Martin: "Joel Olson was one of the greatest professors I have ever had the honor of studying under. He has impacted my life in such a profound way that words cannot describe. Thank you Joel for changing my life and for inspiring me, thank you for being you. You are extremely missed and NAU will never be the same."

-- T. Mark Montoya: "Joel, I wanted to let you know how much your friendship meant to me. Your kindness always made days like this a little better. You had the genius for ALWAYS doing the right thing. I only hope I was half as good a friend to you. It's people like you who make a difference in this world! Thank you, thank you, thank you, Dr. Olson!"

Olson is survived by his wife, three young children and extended family. His wife and children had accompanied him to Spain and arrangements are being made for them to come home.

"We really need to think about her and the children right now as well," Solop said.

A memorial fund has been established for the Olson family at Coconino Federal Credit Union. Details on a memorial service will be released when they become available.

Hillary Davis can be reached at hdavis@azdailysun.com or 556-2261.

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