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In honour of the life of John Olszewski

In honour of the life of John Olszewski

“A good day to you and a better tomorrow.” This was the standard greeting of an intellectual giant, John Olszewski, who went to his final resting place this week.

When a middle-aged man sat in my office around the turn of the century, trying hard to convince me of the value of a weekly analytical weather column, little did I realise what immense impact he will have in my life over the next 15 years.

Working closely with him for 12 years, the discipline of meteorology was unlocked in my mind, giving me a set of tools to understand something of which I knew zilch before meeting John.

But the enormous depth of his knowledge was only one aspect of a man who has left an indelible impression on the way weather and its significance, is viewed. John understood right from the start that there must be a tangible link between Namibia’s climate and its economy for me to take any interest in his observations and opinions. In this he excelled, grasping instinctively the overarching importance of local weather for the country’s future economic development.

In Namibia, the economy can not be separated from the climate. An arid country has so many limitations that no economic policy will work unless it deals with the impact of weather in every project, not only those where an abundance of water is assumed. This reality principle John incorporated into his analytical work.

So, for about 15 years, he religiously, 50 times a year, produced a weather column that grew into a benchmark for understanding the weather, and not trying to be clever by predicting the weather. To this day, when reading some of his work in our archives, one can not help but be impressed by the value of his output. Reviewing his articles, I always come to the same conclusion: if these principles are not accommodated at management and policy level, whatever project we tackle is doomed.

Without any formal university training, he developed into one of the most astute minds working in southern African meteorology. Still, John was in essence a humble man, seldom taking merit for his voluminous contribution, unaffected by the almost father-like affection he enjoyed from dozens of former colleagues at the Namibia Meteorological Service. He was more inclined to quote his mentor, Dr Taljaard, than receive any recognition for his own very significant input.

At his memorial service earlier this week, I could not help but notice what tremendous role he played, often unwittingly, in the lives of so many other people. Universal through all the eulogies were John’s passion, his compassion, his good-natured disposition, and of course, his immense intellect.

Many mentioned how he would take them to school in his blue Volla and collect them on time later, to make sure they get home safely. This I can attest to. His Volla was often parked in front of our offices, sometimes with as many as six children inside, patiently waiting for Uncle John to quickly check out this or that about the weather, before carrying on with his errands of delivering children to their homes.

His charisma continued his entire life. Even for people who knew him only for a few years in his later life, his perseverance and his astute mind never failed to impress them, on top of all his other first-class qualities.

It is difficult to do justice to John’s legacy in a short contribution like this. The man was highly complex, yet ultimately very simple. His motto was: “do unto others as thy would be done by” and he lived this to the fullest.

“John, it was an honour working with you for so many years. Your incisive mind turned a heavy tumbler in mine. You have widened my horizon exponentially, and you have taught me the importance of paying attention to detail. I still hear you: “If you grasp the detail, the bigger picture emerges by itself.”


 

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