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Grand Forks woman shared bond with John McCain

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Jane Olson2 / 2

Jane Olson remembers vividly the day she got to meet Sen. John McCain in person in the fall of 2012.

The Arizona Republican was visiting North Dakota, along with Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., in support of Rick Berg's ultimately unsuccessful campaign against Heidi Heitkamp for the U.S. Senate. On the same trip he toured UND's aviation facility at the Grand Forks airport.

Meeting McCain "was the highlight of my life," said Olson, of Grand Forks. "It was very emotional for me."

She was especially interested to meet the senator because she, some 44 years earlier, had received a POW bracelet inscribed with his name, rank and date of capture.

On Monday, she wore the bracelet and shared her thoughts and memories of the senator.

"It's been stored away, but I wore it today in honor of him, " she said, as she sat in her office at the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences at UND where she works as an administrative assistant.

"He was a great man—a hero, absolutely a hero to me," she said, citing "what he went through" as a POW and refusing to leave North Vietnam ahead of other POWs because his father's role in the war as a four-star admiral in the Navy.

McCain had become a POW after being shot down over North Vietnam in October 1967 and was imprisoned at a camp, which soldiers called "Hanoi Hilton," for five-and-a-half years.

As a senator, "he didn't care about (political) parties," she said. "He was so open about everything. He was passionate about the United States, very passionate about it.

"And he was not afraid to cross party lines."

In-person meeting

At the event in fall 2012 at the UND Flight Operations hangar, she had a surprisingly long visit with the senator—about 30 minutes, she estimated.

"We had a really good talk."

McCain told her he remembered the email she sent him in 2008, offering to return the bracelet to him. She offered it to him again, but "he said he preferred that I keep it," she said.

She noticed that "he was wearing a POW bracelet for a guy who was in Afghanistan," she recalled.

Olson had read his books, she told him, and asked him to sign her copy of "Faith of Our Fathers."

"He signed my book," she said. "It was pretty emotional; he's a pretty cool guy.

"He was surrounded by so many people; he was so patient with us. He posed for pictures."

Olson's father, Daniel Ebertowski, too, was a veteran, she said. He served in World War II in the infantry of the U.S. Army and fought in the Battle of the Bulge, she said.

"He went through an amazingly rough time; he almost froze to death."

Like McCain, her father was passionate about this country, she said. "My dad was really a dedicated war hero, in my eyes."

"He was buried in his World War II uniform," she said.

Receiving POW bracelet

Olson, as a Red River High School sophomore in 1968, went with a group of friends to an event at UND.

"They were holding these mini-gatherings to talk about the Vietnam War," she said. "They were not really rallies, but more just sitting and talking at the student union."

She and others were concerned for friends and classmates who faced the possibility of being drafted, she said. "We didn't really agree with (the war)."

At the event, sponsored by a student organization, "they were passing out bracelets," Olson said. She took one inscribed with, "LCDR JOHN MCCAIN" and "10-26-67," the date of the lieutenant commander's capture by the North Vietnamese.

"I was honored to wear the bracelet," she said. "I wore it all through high school."

At the time, Olson didn't know anything about McCain but later she began to read newspaper articles about him. "Later I realized, this is really some important guy," she said.

Another connection

McCain had another connection with the UND School of Aerospace Sciences. He joined one of the school's annual fishing trips, hosted for alumni and friends, in Manitoba.

A photo of the late Dean John Odegard and McCain, each proudly holding a good-sized fish, is displayed in a gallery near the dean's office. McCain, with a wide grin, is somewhat incognito in a brimmed fishing hat and dark glasses.

The photo is inscribed with a hand-written note, "A wonderful memory of a magnificent man," and signed by McCain.

He was probably on the fishing trip at the invitation of Bob Schumaker, a former associate dean at CAS, who was also a POW in North Vietnam with McCain, said Ken Polovitz, a longtime administrator at the school.

"Bob was one of the first ones in the Hanoi Hilton, before McCain," Polovitz said. "He was there for eight years, three months."

The two became friends and worked out the "tapping on walls with spoons" code they used to communicate with fellow prisoners.

What might have been

Olson, who voted for McCain in his bid for the presidency in 2008, wondered aloud Monday "what it would have been like" if he had beaten Barack Obama in that race.

"It would have been interesting," she said.

Olson said she admired the stance McCain took when, in a speech to his congressional colleagues, he chided them for "not getting anything done" because they were too worried about winning without the help of colleagues "across the aisle."

" 'We've got to get back to some normalcy,' " she recalled him saying. " 'This is not the way we run the government.' "

Olson "was really sad to hear he had passed away," she said.

"He didn't care about parties as much as other politicians do. He cared about making our country better, about improving the United States."