Alton Olson '53

Alton Olson '53
Nicole Sheldon

When Alton was born, his family lived two miles from Maple Plain, Minnesota.

His parents had a ten-acre farm, and their only bathroom was an outhouse. Even though Alton’s dad was an illiterate and poor farmer, his family never missed church, and they were very generous in giving to missions.

Both his parents prayed that at least one of their three children would someday become a missionary.

Alton’s father had only gone to school through the fourth grade. And that was only on rainy days when he couldn’t work in the field. “My grandfather would tell him, ‘Well, it’s raining today. You might as well go to school.’” Both his mom and dad spoke Swedish and had to learn English. When Alton was 11 years old, their family left the farm and moved to Minneapolis, just in time for Alton to start sixth grade. By the time he started at Minnehaha Academy as a sophomore, he was “still pretty much a country hick.”

At Minnehaha Academy things didn’t go very well for Alton. t was a huge time of transition for him, as he tried to fit in with the already formed cliques and friendships. When he was young, Alton’s mother passed away, and his aunt Mabel moved in to help care for the children and the home.

He remembers the principal, Mr. Bengston, and the associate principal, Miss Fellroth. “I remember being sent to the principal’s office WAY too many times.” He didn’t study consistently. “I didn’t take either Physics or Chemistry, partly because I didn’t like the smell that came up from those rooms downstairs. And partly because I probably would not have done very well anyway.” There was one class that he did enjoy: Swedish. The Swedish teacher was Miss Gertrude Sandberg. “She was very old. Of course…she wasn’t as old as I am now…but at the time she seemed very old. She was in her 32nd year of teaching at Minnehaha Academy.”

“My older sister, Shirley, had taken that same Swedish class with Miss Sandberg some years earlier, and had done quite well. I, however, was not the best student.” One day Miss Sandberg said to Shirley, “Alton would do better if he would bring his book to class.” Alton remembers the most important question in Swedish class was: Ar du Svensk, eller Norsk? Which means, “Are you Swedish or are you Norwegian?”

And becoming a missionary?  Alton thought, “how could I become one?  I was the black sheep in the family.”

Alton did not get good grades at MA, and probably would not be accepted into any college. His pastor at Park Avenue Covenant Church suggested that he go to Bible School, as there was one near the church, on 17th and Portland. He went, and “as I was studying the Bible, I grew up, learned discipline, and began to grow in faith each day.”

“As a child, I had seen and heard missionaries speak and show pictures. I had thought about becoming a missionary some day.  One day, in the Bible School library, as I was studying and meditating on the Scriptures, I felt the Lord say to me, ‘Why don’t you become a medical missionary?  Think how much more you could do if you became a medical missionary.’”

When he went home, he said to his dad, “Dad, I think I would like to become a doctor.” He laughed and said, “Why don’t you try something that you can do?” He said that for a good reason, as he knew what kind of grades Alton had earned in high school.

“But what he didn’t know was what was happening to me as I studied the Bible day after day. And that is when it seemed that miracles began to happen. Just the idea of becoming a doctor would be a miracle. Another miracle would be the money needed for medical school.” His parents didn’t have the means to help. “But do you know that when I completed medical school eight years later, I only owed $1,000? That was a miracle!”

The next miracle was how the Lord brought Alton through almost 13 additional years of medical education. 

Near the end of the summer, after completing one year of Bible School, he applied to North Park College in Chicago. “They accept almost anybody. But to accept me, they weren’t quite so sure. At the last minute, I was accepted.  But only on probation.”

He took the train to Chicago. Each morning, he continued the same practice of prayer and Bible reading as he had begun in Bible School. By that time his study habits had markedly improved. And to avoid being distracted, he decided that he should avoid going out with girls. North Park was only a two-year junior college at that time. After two years he used the grades that he had earned at North Park College to transfer to the University of Minnesota into pre-med for two more years. 

“Then came the hurdle of medical school. That was by far the hardest. I applied only to the University of Minnesota. At that time the medical school received about 500 applications each year, and only accepted 150 new students. I was turned down and placed on the alternate list. Soon after that, I was accepted.  And this time, not even on probation!”

But in medical school, there was very stiff competition. About 10 percent of the class failed or dropped out within the first year or so. Sometimes he thought, “Oh, I’ll never make this. I might as well quit now and avoid the suffering. But I never quit. And they never kicked me out. The Lord pulled me through.”

At his graduation from medical school, his dad said, “You did real good, Alton!” Alton says, “I still cherish those words.”  

During medical school, he trained for three years in surgery at the veteran's hospital, and married Ruth, who was a registered nurse.

In his junior year of med school, he met a resident doctor during his surgery rotation. This man was a missionary from India and was doing specialty surgical training. Alton asked if he and Ruth could come and help him in India for a year, and he agreed! They had planned on only staying a year but stayed for four and a half years. But at the mission, he found that there wasn’t time to talk to people about the Lord, as the patients would be there about a week and then he would often never see them again. 

Alton and Ruth desired to have more time to talk with patients about the Lord, so they decided to change their focus. They decided to travel to different locations in the Himalayas, rent a site in each place, and have a clinic. At first, the locals were very skeptical of them coming and wondered about their ulterior motives. At one location, there was a tea stall man who would tell people not to go to their clinic because he was so wary of them. But the only other options were to visit shamans or witch doctors. Later, this same man got sick and he himself came to the clinic. He had tuberculosis, the number one cause of death in India. He came regularly to the clinic for 18 months. During this time, he and Alton became friends. “We did have an ulterior motive–we wanted to show him the love of the Creator that would send his Son so he could have eternal life.” 

“The community health work helped to open the doors to evangelism and church planting in the Himalayan Mountain villages of North India. Most of this work is now indigenized. The Indians are doing it themselves.”

“My life has been a series of miracles. It is just what the Lord promised that He would do. He said, I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. It is so wonderful that He allows us to have a part in His great plan.”


Alton and Ruth posing for a photo with a group of India friends
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