An interview with Dr. Allen Dale Olson about the early years of the overseas schools

Liaison Work

by Allen Dale Olson

In May 1967 I checked into the Directorate of the United States Dependents Schools, European Area (USDESEA) in Karlsruhe, Germany, beginning a twenty-plus year career of working with remarkable educators and military officers. USDESEA had been established by the Defense Department to operate under the Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Army Europe (USAREUR) some 200-plus elementary, middle, and high schools for the sons and daughters of military personnel assigned to the European Area.

For school purposes, in 1967 the European Area extended from sub-Saharan Africa to the Arctic Circle, from Rota, Spain, to Ankara, Turkey, and enrolled more than 100,000 students in schools on Army, Navy, and Air Force installations. USDESEA also had responsibility for paying tuition to international and State Department schools in locations where too few military dependents precluded operating a school. These “tuition-fee”  schools were all over Africa, the Middle East, and in European cities where there were no U.S. military installations. USDESEA was responsible for ascertaining that these schools were providing an acceptable American-style education.

The USDESEA Directorate was organized much like the superintendencies of civilian school systems in the United States – a Director with heads of Curriculum, Logistics, Finances, Facilities, Personnel, and Elementary and Secondary Specialists. Subordinate District Superintendents were based in parts of Germany, along the Mediterranean Coast, and in England. School facilities and transportation services were the responsibility of local host installation commanders, reimbursed by USDESEA.

(It should be noted that while schools in the European Area were supported by the Army, the schools in the Pacific Area – Japan, Korea, etc. – were under the Department of Air Force, and the schools in the Atlantic Theater – Azores, Bermuda, Iceland, etc. – were under the Department of Navy, all with their own civilian school Directorate.)

I arrived to fill a new position for which a job description evolved, ending up with a vague Executive Officer title responsible primarily for public affairs and school-community relations. I loved those duties!

Not only did they necessitate my working with all the Directorate staff but they also meant I had to circulate among the district offices and the schools to meet with local commanders and school staffs. In short, I was not only immersed in the education profession and in communication with strategic military missions and stationing plans, I was also really seeing the world!

My position led to becoming the school system representative to the Transatlantic Boy Scout Council, the North Atlantic Girl Scout Council, the European PTA, and management spokesman for negotiations with the Overseas Education Association and the Overseas Federation of Teachers. It required me to be acquainted with all aspects of school system policies, military populations (to include nature of missions), curriculum decisions, and involved in the development of new and unique programs such as Project Bold, D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse and Resistance Education), African-American Studies. I met with Education Ministers throughout Germany, in England, Holland, and Belgium in search of host nation resource teachers to help our students with language and cultural studies. I was part of numerous meetings working out support details for the establishment of international schools at AFCENT Headquarters in the Netherlands and at NATO-SHAPE Headquarters near Brussels. I met almost weekly with reporters for STARS and STRIPES and the American Forces Radio Network for discussions about school programs, personalities, and current education issues. (Because of the number of letters I answered for STARS and STRIPES, one of the editors referred to me as “The Ann Landers of USDESEA.”)

Other duties included scheduling, planning for, and hosting visiting dignitaries from the Congress, the Defense Department, and Stateside universities and attending national education conferences in the United States. Another very big project in the late 1970s reached my desk: develop a plan to establish a local  advisory council at each school; a regional advisory council for each Directorate, a European level school advisory council, and a similar council at the DoD level!

In short, these duties added up to more than 100,000 traveling miles a year!

Twelve years later, in 1979, Congressional Committees and Defense Department officials determined that the central authority for the schools should be in the Pentagon and that the overseas areas should be broken into smaller “regions,” each with its own regional director and staff. It took a while, because interests within and without the school system and the military departments were not convinced this was a good plan. At the same time, an initiative that reached the White House level would have the Defense Department schools transfer into the new Department of Education and be assigned to an Under Secretary. (Full disclosure: my name was a finalist on the White House list for that secretarial position.)

The services and many long-time veterans of the school system were opposed to the transfer to the Department of Education. When it became obvious that many international Status-of-Forces Agreements and federal employment benefits would have to be revised, the transfer proposal failed, and the DoD centralization happened instead.  USDESEA was dissolved; DoDDS Germany Region North and DoDDS Germany Region South as well as  DoDDS Atlantic and DoDDS Mediterranean Regions were created to replace it.

The USAREUR staff requested a DoD liaison to work with them on their school responsibilities. DoD and one Regional Director resisted the idea; other Directors and the Navy and Air Force both pushed for a liaison. When DoDDS Washington concurred, the USAREUR Commander-in-Chief name-requested me but the DoDDS Director insisted that I also maintain a desk in the DoDDS Germany South office in Karlsruhe. USAREUR accepted that for a while but soon realized that to be credible to their school-hosting installation commanders, the liaison would have to be a full-time USAREUR employee, not a DoDDS employee, so they created such a position to which I was appointed.

My USAREUR duties were not terribly different from my former duties with USDESEA, though I no longer handled press relations. I became a voting member of the European School Advisory Council which met quarterly at one of the command headquarters – Navy in London, USEUCOM in Stuttgart; Air Force in Wiesbaden, later Ramstein; and Army in Heidelberg; and  I became a voting member of the Dependent Education Council which met quarterly in the Pentagon. Agendas included issues obtained from school level and subordinate command officials, such as V Corps (Frankfurt), VII Corps (Stuttgart), 21st Support Command (Kaiserslautern), SETAF (Vicenza), and 7th ATC (Grafenwoehr). I continued to  meet regularly with the Regional Directors (Wiesbaden, Karlsruhe, London, and Madrid) and with designated school officers at subordinate commands, with Air Force and Navy counterparts, and to attend all the regional conferences of school administrators.

The effectiveness of a liaison officer is almost impossible to quantify. If the number of meetings attended and miles traveled or hotel beds slept in were the chief criteria, the evaluations would go through the roof!  But when a school principal needs clarification for his or her installation commander that it’s really the host’s responsibility for school lunch programs, bus transportation and discipline, and for facility maintenance, it’s helpful to have an Army headquarters staffer at his side. Or when a commander or parent committee has concerns about a school issue or employee, it’s useful to bring in opinions from one who has been on the school side to help bring the parties together.

As one who performed liaison duties for twenty years, I can only say the experiences were richly rewarding: because of the caliber of people I met and worked with. The principals and teachers were some of the most imaginative, creative, and dedicated as any I could ever meet; and the military personnel with whom I was surrounded proved over and over how much they honor country, citizen, and duty; and because of being involved with the missions on Freedom’s Frontier with those who served NATO and protected America and Americans.

Not only that, I learned where I could find the best meals near train stations, motor pools, in airports, and along the Autobahns!


by Allen Dale Olson

It isn’t every day a groom sees his bride atop a camel racing toward the horizon of the Sahara Desert. Certainly not something we had planned for on our spring break trip to Cairo and the Valley of the Kings.

We were not really bride and groom – we had been married almost six months but because I had gone off to Turkey right after our 1957 wedding to start my teaching duties at the Izmir High School on the U.S. Air Base and she hadn’t got there until her term started at the Kiz College some weeks later, spring break was our first vacation together. From Turkey it seemed only natural that we should “do” the Middle East. Spring Break saw us in Damascus, Beirut, Jerusalem, and Cairo.

At Giza, with plenty of help from an official guide, I climbed to the top of the Great Pyramid feeling that would be my most exciting adventure in Egypt. Pepsi-Cola changed that feeling.

Reunited with Joanie at the foot of the pyramid, we walked through a gauntlet of vendors and peddlers all hoping and working hard at selling us jewelry, trinkets, carvings, rugs, and camel rides. Yes, camel rides.

Almost every Egyptian vendor had a camel or two and for a few piastres we could take a ride on one. Joanie wanted nothing to do with a camel ride. But one persistent hawker shamed her into thinking about how she’d feel once she got home without having had even her picture taken on a camel. For just a couple of dollars, he would let her sit on his camel named Pepsi Cola for a photo.

With some trepidation, I helped the camel driver hoist her into Pepsi Cola’s saddle. And while she forced a smile, I began snapping pictures.

However, as I put my camera away, Pepsi Cola bolted from the driver and started running toward the desert with the driver yelling for him to come back. But Pepsi Cola, with a screaming passenger, continued into the sands and ran as if he was headed for Libya.

“Come on,” the driver shouted at me; “we’ve got to get her.” He helped me on to his neighbor’s camel – Coca Cola, by the way — got on his own camel and we started the chase. Some two or three hundred yards away from the street, Pepsi Cola came to a stop, and the driver and I could pull to him on both sides. I confess that my camel did it all by himself; I had no idea how to guide Coca Cola.

The driver simultaneously shrieked angry reprimands at Pepsi Cola and reassured Joanie that she was now safe. He said that he and his camel and I and Coca Cola would walk slowly back to the pyramid on either side of Pepsi Cola so that naughty camel could not break away again.

I thanked the driver as we helped Joanie off her mount, but he turned to me with an aggrieved expression and said that since we had had a camel ride, surely we would feel obliged to compensate him, especially since his companion had let us use his camel to help with the rescue. I couldn’t help but notice that the chase had attracted quite an audience of other vendors and passersby, all seemingly curious about how this was going to turn out.

I could not deny that we had each had a camel ride and that the threat of a run-away had seemed very real. I thought about how I should report that perhaps we had been framed but could not identify a single presence in the small crowd who looked as if he would be sympathetic to such a plea. I recalled the price he had quoted earlier for a ride, so I opened my wallet and took out double the amount and paid him in piastres. I also saw a five dollar bill in the wallet and added that to the mix, which seemed to brig him great satisfaction, because he turned to the admiring crowd around us to proclaim what a fine gentleman I am and brave as well, to help rescue his beautiful wife from desert dangers.

On the bus back to Cairo, I could hardly remember my climb up the Great Pyramid.


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  A Christmas Eve I will Always Remember

By Joan Y. Olson

It was December, 1957, and my husband and I were stationed in Izmir, Turkey.  I was a teacher in a Turkish girls’ college, and my husband  was  teaching in the American Military Defense Department school.  We had just been married for 4 months, and this was our first Christmas away from the USA.

We saved as much money as we could so that we could travel to Germany and France, and we were very excited to see these countries. We flew from Izmir to Frankfurt ,Germany, and then took a train to Wurzburg and checked into a hotel. My husband had been stationed in this city as a soldier in WWII. So walking up the hill from town to Leighten Barracks, a German man called out to us. He ran up to my husband and threw his arms around him. He had worked at the same barracks and knew my husband.  I was absolutely amazed that this man had remembered him. This was a good start to our vacation.

We rented a car the next day so that we could drive to Kitzingen to my husband’s cousin’s house. Her husband was in the Army and stationed there. Just 10 miles out of  Wurzburg on Christmas Eve on a very cold evening and absolutely no traffic or cars on the snowy road, we ran out of gasoline.  Of course all gas stations were closed and we were stranded.  Finally a car was coming down the road and my husband jumped out and waited for the driver to see us. A German man stopped and got out of his car and asked if he could help us. We told him that we had no gas. He then went to his car and got a can of gas and poured it into our car.  He would not take any payment and called out to us “Frohe Weihnachten” and drove away. What a wonderful event to always remember. We will never forget this wonderful German.

We drove on to Kitzingen to my husband’s cousin’s house . We had a wonderful Christmas Eve with them. The next day –Christmas Day-we left and drove to the Hotel Lamm in Wurzberg and turned in our rented car.

We took a train to Frankfurt but our flight to Paris was cancelled because of heavy fog so we were put on a train to Paris. We stayed in this beautiful city for three days.  I will never forget what a great time we had here. Next we flew to Rome and were there for New Year’s eve.  What delicious Italian food we had and the prices were very inexpensive as the country was still recovering from the war and the dollar exchange was very strong.

Our  vacation was coming to an end now.  We flew to Athens, Greece and then back home to Izmir. A vacation we will always remember.