Jim Oleson, 77, a longtime Chicago resident and partner of gay historian John D'Emilio, died at their home on April 4, surrounded by loved ones. He had severely weakened lungs and heart, and had recently begun home hospice care.
Oleson came to Chicago in 1999 with D'Emilio, who was appointed professor of history and gender and women's studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Prior to their life here, the two men lived in Greensboro, North Carolina, where D'Emilio had been a professor of history at the University of North Carolina. D'Emilio was born and raised in the Bronx, New York, but the migration to Chicago was a return to the Midwest for Oleson, who was an Iowa native.
Oleson was named Jim by his parentsthe name was not a shortening of James. According to D'Emilio, he was born in 1938 to an unwed mother, in a time when the stigma surrounding unmarried pregnant women meant that keeping their children was unthinkable. Oleson spent the first four months of his life in an orphanage before being adopted by Hazelle and Clarence Oleson of Bondurant, Iowa, a farming community.
His years as an undergraduate at Cornell College in Iowa, where his father had preceded him, would prove to be catalysing and formative for Oleson. He began school in 1956 but was soon forced to withdraw, along with another student, because of being gay. Tragically, the fellow student committed suicide. Oleson's father, who always supported his son, refused to accept the school's decision and angrily petitioned to have him let back in. His strenuous efforts succeeded and Jim Oleson graduated in 1960 but "not without having to endure the stigma of being queer," according to D'Emilio.
Oleson went on to get a masters in American studies at the University of Iowa, then began to get his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania in 1965, where he met and eventually married Clara Rodriguez, who took and kept his name even after they divorced some years later. She became a reputed feminist and labor lawyer and remained close friends with him and D'Emilio till the end.
In 1973, freshly divorced, Oleson decided he no longer wanted to pursue his graduate studies and literally set fire to all his dissertation research. ( He was, by then, ABDAll But Dissertation. ) As he put it to D'Emilio and friends, he wanted to live a gay life and that, for him, meant cutting ties to everything that kept him tethered to a past life as in Iowa and moving to New York City.
Once there, he embarked on a series of jobs to make a living, but chief among them was as a seller and distributor of recordings of classical performances to people and institutions around the world, including collectors, music libraries, music agents, and musicians. He created a company, Good Sound Associates, and became a well-known purveyor of highly desired recordings. At the time, this was not an illegal activity but part of the reality of the music market, when recordings of concerts and performances were not as easily made or available as they are now.
"Maria Callas might perform at La Scala, and someone in the audience might happen to be there with a tape recorder [this was before the age of corporations surveilling audiences to ensure they wouldn't lose a cent in profits], and they would contact Jim who in turn created a tape for wider distribution," said D'Emilio. Oleson was not merely a seller, but, as D'Emilio put it, "the world's biggest opera queen." He owned a personal music collection of the genre and classical music in general of thousands of CDs and vinyl records, and spent hours listening to them. He ended the business when the technology changed, deciding that he would not be able to take on the challenges of shifting to accommodate the changes.
D'Emilio met Oleson over a decade after the latter had moved to New York. As he describes it, "We met in the way many gay men met before AIDS: in the back room of a porn shop in Manhattan, on Dec. 8, 1980. We exchanged numbers and began dating. He wanted to move in after the second week, but I insisted we might only do that after we had dated for five years. We ended up moving in together after two and a half years, when I got the job in North Carolina."
Oleson always said that while D'Emilio had a career, he himself had jobs. These included being a case worker at an agency that worked with non-violent felons on alternative sentencing to keep them out of jail, as student advisor, at AIDS agencies in Washington, D.C., and Greensboro, and in various office administrative positions.
As anyone who knew him even briefly can testify, he was also a passionate man and unafraid to speak his mind. The first time I met him was at an event from which he and D'Emilio gave me a ride back home, and my most vivid memory is of him discussing the US at war and describing this as a "racist country," using an unpublishable epithet before the phrase. He was not the sort to pontificate at length and would often sit and absorb conversations, only inserting himself when he had something to say, which was usually pithy, incredibly smart, droll, and incisive.
He remained "intellectually curious down to the end," said D'Emilio, saying that Oleson regularly read the New York Times, New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. But D'Emilio also remembered him as someone who "lived by the philosophy that we must love one another; there wasn't a mean bone in his body. He was a completely good person."