+ In Memoriam +

Nancy Moyer Olson

Ms. Nancy Olson Going Home, montage by Samantha-Hope Atkins, www.werecover.org

Founder of the AAHistoryLovers

September 18, 1929 - March 25, 2005


New Orleans 2004

Nancy Moyer Olson, Chair Emeritus of the We Recover Foundation

Nancy Olson, Chair Emeritus of the We Recover Foundation,
celebrates her 75th birthday while speaking to their conference
in New Orleans in September 2004

Photo and montage at top prepared by Samantha-Hope
Atkins of the We Recover Foundation and Sober City

  Nancy Moyer was born on September 18, 1929, in Kingston, a town of around 7,000 in northeastern Pennsylvania right across the Susquehanna river from Wilkes-Barre. (Olson was a last name which she picked up in a brief marriage later on.) The town's life centered around the mining of anthracite coal, "black diamonds."

Her father was an alcoholic, and as a little girl, she loved him when he was sober, but was scared to death of him when he was drunk, because he yelled and was angry, and acted in ways that made no sense, although he never attacked her physically in any way. When he and her mother had a falling out and separated temporarily, Nancy (who was 9) had an almost total breakdown and had to be sent to her grandparents to live for a while. Her family considered themselves Lutherans, but Nancy had become skeptical and hostile to any kind of religion by the end of her childhood, and particularly the kind of Protestantism she had been brought up in. She ended up becoming a Roman Catholic instead when she made her peace with religion much later on in her life.

Nancy Moyer Olson's mother and father

Her mother and father's wedding photograph

Nancy Moyer Olson and her sister Jean

Nancy (on the left) and her sister Jean
when they were little girls

Nancy Moyer Olson, nine years old

When she was nine years old, her father and
mother's separation was very traumatic.

In school in Kingston, some of her classmates thought that she was "snobbish," but the reality was that she felt frightened and inadequate, she said, and was afraid of close relationships. When she graduated from the town's high school, she left, seeking adventure and far off places, and vowing never to come back. She enlisted in the military as a WAC, and served in military intelligence during the first part of the Korean war, which began in 1949. At some point after she left home, her father developed emphysema and had to go to a VA hospital. He fell into despair and committed suicide by jumping from a hospital window on an upper floor. This left a deep grief in Nancy from which she never completely recovered.

She married a soldier in a brief relationship which brought her to Chicago in 1951. Twenty-one years old, she became personal secretary to Mortimer Adler, who created the Chicago Great Books series, and continued working for him until about 1955. They became good friends, and Nancy received from Adler what was in effect a superb graduate level education in philosophy and the history of ideas.

Mortimer J. Adler
(December 28, 1902- June 28, 2001)


In Chicago between 1943 and 1952, forty-year-old Mortimer Adler led a unique, quixotic million-dollar experiment to systematise classical wisdom into 102 "Great Ideas," each broken down into a few dozen subtopics. (A 103rd was added in the 2nd edition of 1990 -- Equality.) These 2987 subtopics then served as the subject-index for Adler's edition of the Great Books.

Chairman and Cofounder with Max Weismann of the Center for the Study of The Great Ideas and Editor in Chief of its journal Philosophy is Everybody's Business, Founder and Director of the Institute for Philosophical Research, Chairman of the Board of Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, Editor in Chief of the Great Books of the Western World and The Syntopicon: An Index to the Great Ideas, Editor of The Great Ideas Today (all published by Encyclopaedia Britannica), Co-Founder and Honorary Trustee of The Aspen Institute, past Instructor at Columbia University, Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago (1930-52).


  She and Adler both considered themselves as atheists at first, but Thomas Aquinas' proofs for the existence of God were included in the Great Books series, and other traditional religious writings, which she and Adler debated between themselves. This eventually had its effect. In later years, both she and Adler ended up as believers: Nancy became a Roman Catholic and Adler became an Episcopalian (Anglican).  

Nancy Moyer Olson publicity still

A publicity photo used by Nancy when she was a young
actress at the Pasadena Playhouse in Californie

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