NEW PORT RICHEY — Lifelong public servant Mike Olson, who held the office of tax collector for 32 years, died Wednesday night after being placed in hospice care after suffering a stroke over the weekend.
"It was very sudden and a real shock to the family and to me," said Clyde Hobby, Olson's attorney and best friend.
A New Port Richey native, Olson, 68, was elected tax collector in 1981 and held the office longer than any tax collector in the state. He served six years as a county commissioner from 1974 to 1980. Friends and colleagues described Olson as a "gentle giant" who was at the forefront of modernizing Pasco County government.
"During his tenure as county commissioner — and he was leader the whole time he served — Pasco County adopted zoning, built the West Pasco Government Center, established the utilities department and the fire and EMS departments," Hobby said. "He has had a tremendous impact on Pasco County."
Commission Chairman Ted Schrader said that during his three decades as tax collector, Olson transformed the office into a model of efficiency. He was one of the first tax collectors in Florida to utilize online tax payments and email notifications.
"He was just a marvelous public servant, very professional and efficient," former Commissioner Ann Hildebrand said.
Those thoughts were echoed Thursday by state Reps. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, and Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. Fasano called Olson "one of the finest public servants Pasco County has ever had."
He read every customer comment card submitted by taxpayers and did not hesitate to act on those suggestions.
"Customer service was Mike's Number One priority and was a hallmark of his career in public service to the citizens of Pasco County," Weatherford said.
It was that commitment and reputation that allowed Olson, a Democrat, to win reelection time and again long after Pasco County's political winds had shifted to the right. He recently told school Superintendent Kurt Browning that his 2012 race against Republican Ed Blommel was the most formidable. Still, Olson garnered 68 percent of the vote.
Gov. Rick Scott will appoint a successor to complete Olson's term.
Doris Rosen, president of the Democratic Women's Club, said Olson was a beloved leader in the party. "One of his last fundraisers was a musical event and he played the saxophone," she said. "It was just exhilarating to see him having such a good time. He really cut it up with his buddies."
He loved rock 'n' roll. "Mike was a fabulous musician," retired County Administrator John Gallagher recalled. They played in the band together at Gulf High School. "He was so talented in high school, he could play two saxophones at once."
Olson also was an avid hunter and skilled public speaker who was rarely, if ever, rattled. He was tall, well over 6 feet, but never intimidating.
"He was a big man, but he spoke very softly," Rosen said. "He was a good storyteller and always informative in an interesting way. Every sentence was meaningful."
Olson had a distinguished Pasco lineage. His grandfather, P.L. Pierce, served on the Pasco County School Board. His father, M.N. Olson, was New Port Richey's police chief and later chief deputy for the Pasco County Sheriff's Office. His mother, Mittye Pierce Locke, was a legendary school principal who taught for 50 years at the former Elfers Elementary, renamed Locke Elementary in her honor.
Olson is survived by his wife of 49 years, the former Mary Sawyer; daughters Mary Beth Grodszinsky and Kelly (and Bill) Rutherford; seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Michels and Lundquist Funeral Home in New Port Richey is handling funeral arrangements.