AUGUSTA – Norman Olsen paid much of his tuition at Cheverus High School and Colby College with money he earned hauling lobsters and herring.
After college, he fished a few more years before building a career as a diplomat in the U.S. Foreign Service.
Now 59, the Cape Elizabeth native is back in Maine as the new commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources.
It’s an unusual resume — fishing and overseas service — but Olsen appears well-suited for a job that requires a peacemaker more than an administrator. The heavily regulated fishing industry is notorious for bureaucratic infighting, political brawls and regional disputes.
All of this is familiar terrain for Olsen, said Gene Cretz, U.S. ambassador to Libya, who worked with Olsen in the early 1990s in Israel and the Gaza Strip, which is part of the Palestinian territories.
Providing analysis to the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv, Olsen traveled some 400 times to Gaza during the first Intifada, the uprising against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem that occurred from 1987 to 1993.
Cretz said Olsen looked for ways to bridge differences among Palestinian factions, and between the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Israel.
“Norm is analytical and sees both sides of the picture,” Cretz said. “And he’s very good at bringing opposite sides together and trying to find some common ground.”
Olsen, who comes from a prominent Cape Elizabeth fishing family, said he never stopped following news of the New England fisheries during his various overseas posts.
Those posts include Kosovo, where he was chief of staff of a diplomatic observer mission; Geneva, where he was a deputy economic section chief; and the Marshall Islands, where he worked as deputy mission chief.
During his two-year assignment in the Marshalls, he served as an informal adviser on fishing issues to the country’s president.
Wherever Olsen was posted, he always made an effort to go boating, whether it was exploring the atolls in the Marshall Islands or the coast of Turkey, said Pat Olsen, his wife.
Pat and Norman Olsen met in the swimming pool at Colby College and got married after graduation. For their honeymoon, they sailed from Maine to Florida.
Pat, a Connecticut native, taught her husband how to sail. He taught her navigation and seamanship skills.
The couple taught their three sons how to sail, beginning with lessons on a sailboat in the Oslo Fjord in Norway, while Norman was posted at the U.S. Embassy there.
“We are water people,” she said.
After Norman retired from the State Department in 2008, the couple moved to Cherryfield, where they have owned a vacation home for several years.
While living in Maine, Olsen did some consulting work, training an elite U.S. Special Forces unit on how to deal with government personnel while on tour overseas.
He said he applied for the commissioner’s job at the encouragement of a fisherman who is a close friend. At the time, he hadn’t met Gov. Paul LePage.
On his application, Olsen wrote that he wanted to help rebuild the struggling fishing industry and generate employment.
He doesn’t belong to a political party and would not say whom he supported for governor. In the fishing industry, conflicts don’t follow the usual Democratic-Republican divide, he explained.
He said, however, that he and LePage are in compete agreement on the urgent need to create jobs, and he sees a lot of potential in shore-based processing jobs.
Jim Odlin, who owns three groundfish boats in Portland, said he knew Olsen when he was fishing in high school, and he knew Olsen’s father, Norman “Boy” Olsen, who caught groundfish on a Portland dragger.
He said Norman Olsen’s background is an important political asset that will help him build relationships with fishermen.
“He absolutely knows what goes into making a living on the ocean in Maine,” Odlin said.
Still, Olsen hasn’t been involved in the Maine fishing industry for three decades, said Jim Dow, a Bar Harbor lobsterman and an officer in the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.
It’s too early to tell whether Olsen is the right person for the job, Dow said.
“There are concerns that he has been gone awhile, and there have been a lot of changes,” he said.
Olsen is a tenacious problem-solver and will find a way to succeed in Maine, said Pamela Hyde Smith, who was the U.S. ambassador to Moldova when Olsen served as her deputy from 2000 to 2002.
At that time, the embassy staff was trying to help the Moldovan government and people make the transition from the Soviet system to democracy and a market economy — a tough road made tougher by the presence of Russian troops on the eastern border, she said.
“Norm’s intelligence and pragmatism enabled him to analyze obstacles and find ways around them,” she said.
Olsen is a straight talker, said John Deering, 81, a former financial services salesman who befriended Olsen after meeting the teenager while he worked pumping gas at Jonesy’s Service Center in Cape Elizabeth.
Deering said he recognized that the teenager had the character and intelligence to make something of himself, and he urged Olsen to attend Colby College, Deering’s alma mater.
Deering said he become so fond of Olsen that he began to think of him as a son.
“What he has become gives me intense pride,” Deering said. “He’s come a long way.”
Olsen said he loves his new assignment and being back home in Maine.
“It’s a great opportunity to complete the business I felt was unfinished when I left fishing 30 years ago,” he said. “I wish I could have done more back then. Now I have the opportunity to do more.”
MaineToday Media State House Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 699-6261 or at: