PROVINCETOWN — Hilde Oleson, who began a second career as a poet at age 84 and became a beloved teacher of writing here, died on June 19, 2022 at Seashore Point Wellness Center. She was 99.
Hilde was born on March 16, 1923 in White Plains, N.Y., the daughter of Ferdinand (Fred) and Winnifred Richardson Engel. Her father was a Methodist minister, and the family moved every few years.
Hilde’s high school years were spent in Randolph, Vt. where she was valedictorian of her class in 1941. While in school she took a speed-reading class, which she credited with giving her the lifelong skills to consume the books she loved so much.
Hilde went to Boston University on a scholarship, graduated in 1945, and secured a job in Pittsfield as a social worker. It was there she met her future husband, Ken Oleson, who worked at a gas station where she filled her car.
Ken and Hilde moved to Burlington, Vt., where their first two sons, Ken Jr. and William (known as Arlen), were born. They would have two more children: Tina and Fred.
After her children were old enough to go to school, Hilde became a teacher, first at the Infant Jesus Parochial School in Nashua, N.H. On her first day with special needs children, Hilde came home for lunch and proclaimed, “I am in love!” Thus began a long and rewarding career of working with children.
She continued teaching at the Ledge Street Elementary School and then the James B. Crowley School, both in Nashua, where she began a lifelong friendship with Kay Williams (later Porter), her co-teacher in a special needs classroom.
Hilde attended Lesley College in Cambridge in the evening and earned her master’s degree in education.
When she retired in the late 1980s, Hilde started a children’s clothing store in Hollis, N.H., called Admiral Woolsey’s.
Hilde and Ken spent several months in the winter each year in Puerto Rico, which they loved. Hilde especially enjoyed playing the slot machines there.
The Olesons had moved to Merrimack, N.H. in 1957 and lived in the same house on Turkey Hill Road until the 1990s. Once Ken’s dementia became too demanding, they moved to the Aynsley assisted living community in Nashua.
After her husband died, Hilde went with her son Arlen on a road trip to Provincetown where they leased a large home together and rented out rooms to a variety of colorful people who provided her with many interesting stories to tell.
When Arlen left Provincetown for Maine, Hilde decided to stay. She often said that she had come to Provincetown to die but found living in this town by the sea more interesting.
Hilde joined Rosalind Pace’s memoir group in 2004. She began writing a book about Ward, a friend of hers, and tried her hand at poetry. “Hilde was a treasured member of the memoir group,” said Rosalind. “It was wonderful to see how she launched herself into her new life and home here, which she lived exuberantly for so many years.”
Hilde was also nurtured by poet Keith Althaus’s seminars in Truro.
With Dian Hamilton, Hilde founded the Writer’s Voice Café in 2007, featuring one special writer and with an open mike for anyone wanting to read. The café continued for the next 13 years.
“Hilde was a tremendous inspiration to work with, as well as a friend who constantly challenged me with her marvelous ideas,” said Dian. “She had a great love of Provincetown, and Provincetown loved her back. She touched so many hearts and left a creative body of work as well as a legacy of creative contributions that will last forever.”
Hilde was a prolific poet, writing daily and enthusiastically sharing her poems with others. One day she received a phone call informing her that her collection of poems Love in the Nursing Home had been chosen as the winner of a writing contest. A friend had entered her poems without her knowing. Thinking they had the wrong person, Hilde ignored the call. The caller persisted, so she asked to have the poems read to her and realized that, indeed, they were her poems. Her first chapbook was launched, and thus began her career as a published poet.
Hilde began her own writing group at her home with three other poets: Margaret Phillips, Lorraine Kujawa, and Pat Lombardi. They produced a book, Coffee at Hilde’s.
“She turned her whole life into a poem, one that welcomed the world in,” said Pat.
Among her many other books and chapbooks were Dreams Reward, Why Not, and Gulls and Such. Hilde also collaborated with videographer David Cox on six videos, including “My Beautiful Crazy Town,” in which she narrates her own poetry against the backdrop of the Province Lands.
Hilde was fascinated by the story of the Provincetown smallpox epidemic in the 1800s. She found the names of those in the smallpox cemetery and wrote of what their lives may have been like at the “pest house” in the dunes, where they had been cared for.
Hilde helped care for men suffering from AIDS who had come to Provincetown. “There were a couple of young men who encouraged me tremendously,” she told writer Susannah Elisabeth Fulcher in an interview last year. “One of them — he was at the end of his life when I met him — read one of my poems and told me I must keep on writing. No one had ever encouraged me like that or told me that I was wonderful at something. My parents felt that if you were told you were doing something well, you’d get vain. When people told me that my poems were worth looking at and started publishing them, it amazed me.”
At the yearly Swim for Life in Provincetown, Hilde read her poems to large appreciative audiences.
From 2011 to 2019, Hilde taught the “Writing Connection” at the Provincetown Senior Center. “She created this weekly group with a strong commitment to offering a free space for older adults to write, especially those who had never written a word or had been told they couldn’t write,” said Chris Hottle, the center’s director.
Hilde also created programs at the senior center for National Poetry Month. In 2018, she was honored as the Provincetown Senior of the Year.
Her last reading, via Zoom, was in April 2022, in honor of National Poetry Month.
Hilde is survived by her dear friend Jeff Walker; her daughter, Tina Hammond; her sons Fred Oleson and wife Kelly, Kenny Oleson and wife Sukey, and Arlen Oleson and partner Metta. She also leaves her grandchildren, Annabell, Maya, Ingrid, Elizabeth, Margaret, and Hanna, and her great-grandchildren Adaline and Alice.
Hilde was predeceased by her sister, Martha, who was seven years younger.
A celebration of Hilde’s life is being planned for September.
“What all this doesn’t say is what a brilliant, vital person she was,” said her daughter. “That so many people are desolate at her passing is a tribute to her innate goodness and love of life.”
Dian Hamilton contributed reporting.