Olav Smedal

Ole, as he was known to friends and colleagues, was the quintessential outdoorsman –angler, hunter, boater, camper, writer and editor – and also photographer, publicist, builder and craftsman, raconteur and communicator.  In every endeavor, Olav was a perfectionist. Mid-Iowans knew him best through his long association with The Tribune.


During his career with The Tribune as an outdoor writer and journalist, Olav reached thousands of readers with his Outdoors with ‘Ole’ column, published continually for almost four decades.  After his retirement from the Iowa Department of Transportation, he expanded his writing and created a full-page spread each Thursday which he called the Outdoor Page.  The first page appeared on October 22, 1970.  He continued to write his weekly column as a component of the page, prepared many feature stories, sold the advertising that paid for the page, and did all of the layout and composition for it.  His wife, Vivian, did the typing and read proof.  Olav continued this weekly feature for 17 years until "retiring again."  The last Outdoor Page was January 28, 1988.  Olav had been an outdoor columnist for 22 years, and the outdoor editor of The Tribune for 17 years, for a total of 39 years when he said so long at age 83.


Olav credited his mother, Agnes, with his intense love of nature, developed during long hikes in the countryside.  Mother and son delighted in identifying numerous birds and wildflowers as they walked along the nearby Skunk River or through the woods surrounding the family parsonage in Roland, Iowa.  As the youngest child of Norwegian immigrants, Olav shared the Norsk national tradition of growing up with nature. His parents had come to America in 1889 and settled six years later in Roland, where Gotfred served as pastor of Bergen Lutheran Church for 25 years.

Olav became a trapper at an early age, and related how he set his traps on his way to school, sometimes being sent home for a change of skunk-scented clothing.

In 1920, the family moved to Minneapolis where Olav graduated from Central High School.  He attended the University of Minnesota for two years, studying forestry, and graduated from the two-year Smeby School of Advertising and Journalism.  Olav was employed in the advertising field in many locations during the 1920s and 30s, including department stores in Winona, Minnesota, and Sidney, Montana.  He also was advertising manager for numerous newspapers throughout Iowa including those in Perry, Atlantic, and Sioux City.


While living in Ames, Olav built a houseboat on a vacant lot at 13th Street and Clark Avenue during the spring of 1935.  The houseboat was launched above the dam on the Des Moines River at the Des Moines and Southern Railway Power Station at Fraser, Iowa, Saturday, August 17, 1935.

Olav christened the houseboat, Valo (Olav spelled backwards), a name he would later reuse for his photography business.


Olav worked for The Tribune, producing the Ames Theater Company advertisements which appeared in that newspaper.  An employee of the company was Vivian Snook, the younger sister of Neta Snook Southern, who was Amelia Earhart’s first flight instructor.  Vivian was secretary to the president of the theaters, Joe Gerbrach.

Olav and Vivian were married on August 1, 1937, in her parents’ home at 828 Wilson Avenue in Ames.  The newlyweds moved to Marshalltown, where Olav was employed by the Marshalltown Times Republican newspaper.  During this time, his love of the outdoors was evidenced by his publication and editing of two magazines, the Iowa Sportsman and the Mid-West Sportsman.  Later, and just prior to World War II, Olav and Vivian moved to Clear Lake, Iowa, where Olav served as executive secretary for the chamber of commerce.

Olav enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1942 while living in Clear Lake, and served until 1945 when he was honorably discharged.  He then rejoined his wife and family in Ames where they had moved during the war.  Olav had completed photography training in the Navy, including aerial photography, and upon his return to Ames he established the Valo Feature Service, a free-lance photography and advertising business.

Olav, Vivian and their two children, Karsten and Kären, lived at 1131 Northwestern Avenue in Ames.  Beginning in 1952, Olav exercised his considerable woodworking skills on a project to convert the attic of this home to livable space.  His remodeling effort was so successful it inspired others in Ames, including the knotty pine basement renovation done by fishing buddy, Con Wendell.



In the fall of 1947, Olav photographed the traditional wild rice harvest by the Chippewa Indians at Mud Lake, Ball Club, Minnesota.  Rice harvesting by a pair of Chippewa Indians is shown in the above photo.  One person propels a 13-foot flat-bottomed boat with a push pole.  The other bends the heads of grain over the edge of the boat, then lightly taps them with a 30-inch tapered stick to remove the grain.

As instructive and engaging as the series was in documenting the rice harvest, this portrait became the iconic image from the photo documentary.


As a founding father and charter member of the Ames Chapter of the Izaak Walton League, Olav was actively involved in a variety of projects for many years.  An ambitious undertaking of the Ikes was the annual Field Days beginning in 1952.  For this event, Olav created a souvenir program and solicited ads from local businesses.


On June 18, 1954, Olav joined the Iowa State Highway Commission, now the Iowa Department of Transportation (IDOT), and on December 1, 1957, he was named Information Director.  He retired from that position on May 29,1970, at age 65.


Throughout his outdoor-related career, Olav was a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers, the Izaak Walton League, Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, Iowa Wildlife Federation, U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, and many similar organizations.  He frequently received recognition and awards from these groups for his informational and promotional efforts on their behalf.  He also was a member of the American Legion, the Iowa Historical Society, the Ames Historical Society, and Ascension Lutheran Church in Ames.

In recognition for his many long-term contributions in behalf of conservation on the local, state, and national levels, The Tribune established the Olav Smedal Conservation Award in 1988.  Presentations have been made annually, and Olav was able to participate in some of them until his death on November 27, 1993, at age 88.


Photos and documents

Private collection of Karsten Smedal and Kären Smedal John


Smedal, Karsten. Interviews, August 17, 2006; September 4, 2006.

Script (adapted), September 4, 2006.