At first glance, you’d never believe Elsa Olson is 94 years old.
And when you hear her speak, it’s even harder to swallow. She’s sharp and expressive, and has a command of the English language like the proverbial schoolmarm. During our interview, Elsa actually corrected my use of the verb “can” to “may.” You go, girl!
Elsa’s background is anything but schoolmarmish. She ran three dress shops in California before she retired — one in Orange, one in Fullerton and one on Balboa Island. When she moved to San Diego, she chose Pacific Beach because it’s where her son, Chris, lives. (She also has a daughter, Cheryl, in Palm Desert.)
She tells a wonderful story about her PB life when she was in her 70s: “I lived on Beryl Street when I first moved here. I would walk down to the beach in my bare feet and run along the shore there. And my son would be surfing. When I walked, I could see him, and he would look for me and surf down to find me. He would meet me and we’d say a few words, and then I would run back to Beryl Street. Those were the fun days!”
Elsa is still drawn to the water. She now lives at Oakmont of Pacific Beach, an assisted living facility on Grand Avenue. She walks to the beach every day. But there’s still one more thing on her beach bucket list. She wants to conquer one of the protective sand <FZ,1,0,21>berms built up on the beach during the winter months. With a mischievous grin, she admits: “I see those mounds, and I think I’d really like to climb one of those without my shoes on!”
Elsa said she moved to Oakmont because that type of living appealed to her — “no more cooking, no more cleaning and lots of activities.” Now, every day she takes an exercise class or does water aerobics. She attends food forums, movie nights and Bible studies. And she still loves her happy hours, which usually include live music.
“We get out there and dance with each other,” she explains. “Not cheek-to-cheek, but more holding hands and having a nice relationship. This is a very happy place because we care for one another.”
And Elsa still gets out in the neighborhood. “We have what we call BORC — BORC stands for the streets Beryl, Oliver, Reed and Cass, which was my old neighborhood. Some of my best friends still live there. I still visit them and go to happy hours with them.”
Elsa grew up in the small California town of Reedley in Fresno County. Her life revolved around church, school and sports. “My parents gave me piano lessons, which were 25 cents a lesson then, and I played the piano for the Sunday School department.”
When she got married and moved to Orange, her dress shops took her down an interesting path — she coached contestants in the Miss America pageant every year for 35 years. “Since I had three dress shops,” she recalls, “I could pick out contestants’ gowns, their interview outfits for appearances, and their swimsuits. I got professional help for their voice, diction and current events. I got a makeup artist. I got someone to do their hair. I had them work with a talent specialist if they needed something more.”
Elsa worked with several Miss California’s, and one contestant who went on to place third in the Miss America pageant. But winning was only a bonus to her. “It’s amazing, the thrill I got out of it, to see these girls start out as a contestant, hardly able to use the mic and say ‘My name is … ’ and ‘I want to be …’ When they got through with this three-month program, it was amazing, just what it did for them. It was worth it to me, just that part of it.”
Elsa never got paid for her coaching, but she did get recognized. She was named “Mrs. City of Orange” by the City Council there and received a framed proclamation she has to this day. She was also honored by the Rotary Club and Soroptimist for her civic involvement.
When asked what the secret to her long life is, she grows quiet and emotional. It takes her several seconds to respond: “God is the center of my life. If anything comes up, I just talk to Him, and that’s comforting to me. I leave it to Him to handle. I would say He makes me happy.”