Throughout a transcontinental odyssey when he was a youth that included three years in a remote Siberian village for political exiles, Harold Olin (ARCH ’54) kept close to him a cherished reminder: a personal-sized 48-star flag, a gift to him from his father, who promised Olin that they would one day be reunited in America.
Born on Chicago’s West Side, Olin was nine months old when his mother died. His single father, a recent Romanian immigrant, thought his son would fare better being raised by a loving family, so he took Olin to live with his sister and her husband in the East European Republic of Moldova. In 1940, the former Soviet Union occupied the Moldova region and confiscated the small shoe store his family owned. One year later, Olin and his aunt were exiled to a tiny farming village in a remote part of Siberia, while his uncle was sent separately to an undisclosed labor camp somewhere in the Ural Mountains.
As an 11-year-old newcomer to farm life, Olin was required to perform unfamiliar duties such as herding sheep, tending the small family plot to raise potatoes and other vegetables, and bringing water from the river. He transported the water by balancing two buckets on a wooden yoke across his shoulders for the half-mile trip home.
Police required families that were exiled to Siberia to remain there for a minimum of 20 years. Leaving without permission was impossible since the area was surrounded by quicksand marshes and access was by a river that the police patrolled. After nearly three years under these conditions, Olin and his aunt were granted a travel permit to go to Uzbekistan, where he resumed the education that was not available to him in Siberia. Permission was granted only after intervention by the United States Department of State because Olin was an American citizen.
In Uzbekistan, Olin advanced rapidly in his academics and excelled in his English lessons. In 1946, after much diplomatic entreaty, he rejoined his father in Chicago and finished his secondary education at the famous Bronx High School of Science.
Olin went on to pursue a distinguished career in architecture, promoting standards of quality in design and construction, energy efficiency, and environmental planning as essential means of improving residential developments across the country. He also served as managing deputy building commissioner for the City of Chicago, where he guided the comprehensive revision of the Chicago Building Code. A fellow of the American Institute of Architects, Olin is principal author of Olin’s Construction: Principles, Materials, and Methods, an educational industry text that has been in continuous publication and in use since 1964.
Although the relationship Olin and his father shared may have been separated by geographic distance for most of his life, Olin says that in addition to the treasured flag, his father also left him with a sense of mission he carried forward his entire life in this country.
“I can remember that every time I saw my father he would say, ‘So, what did you accomplish today? Did you make a difference?’” says Olin. “I don’t know that I succeeded every time, but he embedded that belief within me to this day.”