Louis T. (Lou) Olom, a venerable founding father of the City of Falls Church and especially its world-renowned school system, died July 25 at age 102.
Over 200 of the City’s most formidable citizens, most of whom shared in Olom’s relentless efforts at improving his community since moving to the City in 1953, joined Olom family members and other friends to celebrate his life at the Temple Rodef Shalom, of which he was a founding member, yesterday afternoon.
Olom is credited with introducing the International Baccalaureate curriculum into the school system in the 1980s when it was a genuinely novel program and virtually non-existent in U.S. public schools. Now, the system has a full K-12 IB program and is routinely ranked as one of the most outstanding in the region and even the nation.
Two years ago, on his 100th birthday on July 10, 2017, the Falls Church community celebrated Olom’s birthday with a formal proclamation declaring the day as “Lou Olom Day,” and a community party was held in his honor at the Mustang Cafe of George Mason High School.
A News-Press article at the time reported, “Though he only briefly served in an official capacity in the city with a term on the school board, Olom has been responsible for much of Falls Church’s historic preservation and beautification efforts since moving here in 1953. These accomplishments include his inaugural chairmanship of Historic Falls Church, Inc. preserving historic buildings in the City along with his co-organizing of the Falls Church Village Preservation and Improvement Society in 1965.”
Olom led the effort to win the All-America City Award for Falls Church in 1962 and to create the city’s first arborist position along with the creation of two public gardens. He also was one of the leaders co-founding Citizens for a Better City. He was a strong advocate of historic preservation, appropriate architectural design and great landscaping in Falls Church organizing charettes here led by national known experts.
To many, Olom’s most important contribution was convincing the Falls Church City Schools to adopt the International Baccalaureate program at its George Mason High School at a time when it was a truly novel move.
Falls Church City Schools just last year celebrated the accomplishment that the entire system, K-through-12, is now built on the uniquely challenging curriculum of the internationally-acclaimed IB program. The initial adoption of the program in 1981 at Olom’s urging made Mason the first public high school in the state and among the first in the nation to join the program, and the national reputation for the excellence of the Falls Church School System was established, being maintained ever since.
Before a 31-year stint in the U.S. Information Agency working under such luminaries as Edward R. Murrow, Olom was firmly entrenched in academia, ascending to the department chair of social and political science at what is now the University of Jacksonville and working previously for the Rockefeller Foundation on research on international information content analysis.
Olom was born in Chicago in 1917 to Russian immigrants. After his father died when he was 13, he helped run his uncle’s fish and poultry store with his mother and sister.
In a story he shared with the News-Press’ publisher Nicholas Benton years ago, Olom described how after his father’s death, there were a number of regular customers at the fish store who remained loyal to his mother and their struggling family. One day, one such customer showed up to find Olom’s mother in tears. Asked what was wrong, she explained that her son, Lou, had just graduated with honors from high school but she had no money to send him to college.
It turned out the customer was on the board of trustees of the University of Chicago, and he arranged for Olom to be enrolled there. The rest was history.
Olom’s daughter Noralyn Harlow led a succession of family and friends who spoke about his life at yesterday’s service, including telling stories of his 50-year marriage to his wife, Sue.
He was hailed for his “commitment to our world,” and “for the fact that we are all better for having known him.” He was described as a “true mensch,” a Hebrew/Yiddish term describing “a person of integrity and honor,” emanating “happiness and a love of life.”
His career ranged in vocations from hat salesman and fireman to foreign intelligence officer. He was described as one who “changed lives,” who “loves, honors and cares for others,” an avid harmonica player who saw his role “to repair and protect the world.”
Olom was the husband of the late Susan L. Olom; father of Noralyn O. Harlow (John T.), Deborah L. Sherman (Andrew), and the late Jonathan L. Olom; brother of the late Dell Borschow (Sidney); grandfather of Kristin Harlow, Amanda Bitzer, Benjamin Sherman, Sarah Sherman, and David Sherman; great-grandfather of five.
In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to Jonathan L. Olom Trial Advocacy Scholarship at University of Denver Sturm College of Law or Olom International Baccalaureate Fund, Falls Church Education Foundation.
Checks can be sent to FCEF, Olom IB Fund, 150 S. Washington St., Ste. 400, Falls Church, Virginia 22046 or online at www.fcedf.org, click on “donate now.”