Though it has been more than 50 years since he lived in Warsaw full-time, and he passed away nearly eight years ago, Fred Olds left a local legacy.
A man known for mastering multiple mediums of art and likely being ahead of his time, many of Olds’ paintings and other artwork are still displayed locally and his impact as a teacher has resonated through the generations.
Born in Ohio in 1916, Olds grew up in Warsaw. As a child he developed a fascination with American Western art and culture and it would later motivate him to move to Oklahoma. After serving in the military during World War II and college, Fred and his wife, Flora Anne, were living in Long Island, N.Y., when Fred received a phone call from Carl Burt, then superintendent of the Warsaw school system. Burt was looking for innovative teachers and asked Olds to move back to the Midwest to teach and coach.
The story of Olds is told in great detail in the book “Portrait of an American: Fred Olds,” by Gayle Goodman.
Olds accepted the offer from Burt and became an art and music teacher, as well as a coach of track and football, in the Warsaw school system beginning with the 1950-51 school year. Mike Kelly, himself an artist who has a studio in Winona Lake, recalled Olds taught him in the third grade at East Ward Elementary in Warsaw, a school no longer in existence.
“Fred was my first mentor and I developed an art connection with him,” Kelly noted. “Fred didn’t instruct you in the finer points of drawing and painting; you observed him work. He taught you life lessons, dedication, confidence, perseverance and stressed the necessity of leaving the small town to pursue a career in the arts.
“He was a huge influence on myself and Bob Blosser and was proud that we both had successful design careers in San Francisco and Chicago. My current career as a fine artist is a second act in the journey that began with Fred Olds.”
Kelly was also connected to Olds because Kelly’s mother, Doris, had dated Olds before she later married someone else.
Moving back to Warsaw also allowed Olds to further develop his passion for raising horses. Gail Olds, wife of Wesley Olds, a nephew of Fred Olds, said Fred enjoyed raising horses and later raised a line of Appaloosa horses that is still very well regarded today.
Olds continued to make an impact teaching in the classroom and also made a difference outside of the school setting. Some may recall the beautifully detailed scenes he hand painted on the walls all the way around the former Humpty Dumpty Grill in downtown Warsaw. The building is now home to B-Mac’s on Buffalo and the scenes were painted over several years ago and are no longer visible.
Gail Olds recalled the first scenes Fred painted had a Warsaw sports theme since he was a coach of athletic teams. “The scenes covered all the walls wherever there had been paint and they were huge,” she said.
The large murals were painted by Olds during a few years span with the last one being done in approximately 1965, Gail recalled. The last time the scenes were all of a Western theme. “Most all of his artwork was Western,” she said. “He was fascinated by the Western culture. He actually had a full Indian head dress.”
The Klondaris family owned Humpty Dumpty and Gail recalled they paid Fred $300 and all the breaded pork tenderloins he could eat if he would paint the murals. Olds was a regular customer at the diner and savored the tenderloin sandwiches.
Some of the murals were painted when Olds returned to Warsaw for a visit after he had moved his family to Oklahoma in the early 1960s. Olds continued to teach and coach at public schools and even at the college level while in Oklahoma. He bred Longhorn cattle and won four national championships with his Appaloosa horses.
He served as director of the Oklahoma Territorial Museum and Carnegie Library for 14 years. He painted more than 100 pictures of the Oklahoma land runs and his paintings and sculptures are exhibited worldwide in museums, churches, universities, on public grounds and in private collections. He also wrote poems describing his paintings and in 1999 earned the Western International Poets Award for the volume “A Drop in the Bucket.”
Olds was chosen in the 1990s to sculpt a bust of Thaddeus Kosciuszko, whom Kosciusko County is named after. The bust is still on display at the Old Jail Museum of the Kosciusko County Historical Society in downtown Warsaw. Another bust was sculpted of Pete Thorn for the Baker Youth Club in Warsaw.
Those who knew him say Olds was multi-talented in various art mediums. “He was a better sculptor than painter,” Kelly said. “There is a lot of his art still around here and I didn’t know at first he was a sculptor.”
He was also ahead of his time. “He was always an educator and he felt very strongly about preparing students from high school to get a job after high school,” Gail Olds said, during a time when vocational type training was not emphasized as much. “Some students were not able to go to college or technical school.”
Fred Olds also loved teaching kids and “was always upbeat and good to talk to,” said Kelly. “Everybody loved Fred.”
Others remember his generosity and the many pieces of art he gave away free of charge. Fred Olds passed away in April 2005 while living in Oklahoma.