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Hundreds honor life of Sherm Olsrud

Within a building that bore his name, a crowd in the hundreds remembered Sherm Olsrud, a man who made immeasurable contributions to the Rogue Valley’s community and economy.

They filled bleachers and folding chairs inside the Olsrud Arena Saturday afternoon at the Jackson County Expo to remember the longtime owner of Sherm’s Food 4 Less and Sherm’s Thunderbird markets and quiet supporter of numerous community organizations. Olsrud died last month at the age of 95 after more than five decades in Southern Oregon.

According to John Dimick, a former Chairman of the Jackson County Fair Board, one example of the way Olsrud — and his wife since 1947, Wanda — helped build their community was the very arena that surrounded mourners, which Dimick called “a monument to community support and kids.”

He remembers Olsrud calling him late in the night in the late 1990s, offering to cover costs of the building so youth farmers would have a better show-and-sale area than the tent used for auctions that’d been used when the fairgrounds moved to its current location on Penninger Road in 1976.

The auctions have brought in more than $19,185,000 since 1998, and Dimick estimates that the figure will surpass $20 million by the end of the upcoming Jackson County Fair.

Olsrud — whose grocery career started with butchering shortly after returning from World War II — was a major buyer from local junior livestock auctions starting shortly after buying the Thunderbird market in 1967. Dimick said Olsrud admired the money management and marketing skills youth learned through the programs, not to mention the college savings it brought them.

Dimick said Olsrud bought about 40 project animals a year for half a century — about 2,000 livestock in Jackson County alone — and closer to 3,000 animals when considering his similar support in Josephine, Klamath, Douglas and Siskiyou counties.

“That spark of support led to successful careers and businesses,” Dimick said, describing the support as “having their lives changed.”

Dimick said there’s a “shortage of real role models” before sharing a quote by Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho: “The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion.”

“Must’ve been thinking of Sherm and Wanda,” Dimick said.

Olsrud also helped the community through the hundreds of jobs at his stores in Medford, Klamath Falls and Roseburg. According to Bob Ames, the general manager of Sherm’s Thunderbird and a 40-year employee of the company, the company has 640 employees, of which 500 are full-time with health benefits and 362 are journeyman positions.

During the service, Ames asked current and former employees to raise their hands. Roughly 9 of every 10 were touched by the businesses Sherm Olsrud built, and nearly all in attendance were one degree of separation from that crowd.

Ames praised Olsrud’s acumen for good buys and empowering employees.

“The customers loved Sherm as much as the employees did,” Ames said.

Philip Yates, who recently retired from his position as Nutritional Director for ACCESS after 27 years with the food pantry, said Olsrud also shrewdly kept track of the stores’ inventory.

Yates remembers a “pull-date donation” program where he sought donations of groceries from various stores that were close to their sell-by date. Yates said his pitch was to emphasize that it would prevent food from going to waste. Olsrud was shocked stores let food go to waste in the first place, as he preferred to mark such inventory way down and blow it out.

Yates said he’s still an “avid shopper” at Sherm’s stores because Olsrud has helped bring more than 4 million pounds of food to the Rogue Valley since the 1970s.

Another community builder who honored Olsrud was Tom Cole, CEO of Kids Unlimited.

Cole recounted a time in the early to mid-2000s, before he knew Olsrud well, when the then after-school youth program obtained an old bowling alley that was dusty and dingy and on its surface “didn’t represent much.”

“They had the courage to think about what it could be,” Cole said.

The Olsruds’ belief that something greater could happen empowered him to stay true to his vision, Cole said, and he admired the way they treated people with respect — no matter whether they grew up on the “right side of the tracks or wrong side of the tracks.”

“Who he was as a person set the bar of who we ought to be,” Cole said.

You can reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTCrimeBeat.

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneMarc Bayliss of Medford sign a photo of Sherm Olsrud Saturday afternoon at the Jackson County Expo before a memorial service for Sherm.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneSteve Olsrud, President of Sherm’s Markets, address friends, family and community Saturday afternoon at the Jackson County Expo during a memorial service for Sherm Olsrud.