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Nancy Olson; Hill Aide and Lobbyist

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 15, 2005; Page B06

Nancy Moyer Olson, 75, who died of congestive heart failure March 25 at a care center in Roanoke, was a legislative aide to two Democratic U.S. senators and later became a lobbyist on trade issues. She also was a former actress and recovering alcoholic who briefly aspired to be a nun.

Ms. Olson spent the past decade lecturing internationally about alcoholism; starting a Web site about the history of Alcoholics Anonymous; and writing a book, "With a Lot of Help From Our Friends" (2003), about her role working with Sen. Harold E. Hughes (D-Iowa), one of the first politicians to publicly acknowledge his alcoholism.


Nancy Olson lectured, wrote about alcoholism and had a career on Capitol Hill. (Family Photo)

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Ms. Olson was born in Kingston, Pa., to an alcoholic father who later fell to his death from a hospital window. She served in the Women's Army Corps in the late 1940s in Panama and then briefly married a soldier, who brought her to his home in Chicago.

Bored as a housewife, she applied for a secretarial job and won a position working for philosopher Mortimer J. Adler at the University of Chicago. She was insecure about her lack of formal education and was uneasy about being called "God's secretary" -- a reference to Adler's reputation.

She recalled frequent conversations with Adler, who tried to encourage her by giving her books to read. "Here, I want you to read this chapter," she recalled him telling her after one talk. "You will see that Aristotle agrees with you."

As a young woman, she bore a vague resemblance to Grace Kelly and longed for an acting career. Adler helped her with a letter of introduction to study at the Pasadena Playhouse in California, but she had little luck impressing film studios. "The big Hollywood producers," she once wrote, "never tumbled to my charms."

Instead, she traveled the Caribbean with a British banker and began her descent into alcoholism. Having her "breakfast beer" one morning in 1965, she saw a program about alcoholism and instantly saw herself reflected in the testimonies of those who similarly suffered from a need to drink.

"I had known for some time that I was an alcoholic, but I thought it was my secondary problem," she wrote.

"I believed that I was insane, and that was why I drank too much and thus had become an alcoholic. (God knows I had been doing a lot of insane things.)"

She joined Alcoholics Anonymous and was doing volunteer work for the Democratic National Committee in Chicago in 1968 when she met Hughes, who was impressed with her life story and invited her to Washington to join his staff. She worked for the special subcommittee on alcoholism and narcotics and played a key role in drafting the so-called Hughes Act, which established the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

She helped Hughes in his unofficial work on Capitol Hill as a counselor to alcoholics.

After Hughes left political life to pursue the ministry, she joined the staff of Sen. Harrison A. "Pete" Williams Jr. (D-N.J.).

She also suffered a nervous breakdown and, long agnostic, converted to Catholicism.

Discouraged by the 1980 Republican landslide election and feeling embattled by the liquor lobby, she entered the Visitation of Holy Mary, a cloistered monastery in Georgetown, with the idea of becoming a nun. She was 51, and various physical ailments, especially weakened legs, prevented her from completing many of the conditions of sisterhood that required long periods of standing.

She resumed her political career as a legislative analyst and lobbyist until her retirement in 1995.

Her marriage to Everett Olson ended in divorce. Survivors include a sister, Jean Earl of Roanoke.


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