MORAGA -- Rome wasn't built in a day, nor the tiny town of Moraga built by one man, but if they had been, you might want 2013 Moraga Citizen of the Year Dick Olsen to do the handiwork.

A master of efficiency with a keen eye to the apparatus undergirding a city's architecture, Olsen has been a major league player in the town he has called home since 1972.

The former Transamerica Corporation executive was pivotal (along with Bob Merritt, who Olsen credits with "doing the heavy lifting,") in the town's 1974 incorporation drive.

He initiated the East Bay's first-in-the-region paramedic service, supported open space preservation before it became eco-culture's cause, and backed the road repair-oriented Measure K last November. Three terms on the Moraga-Orinda Fire District board further cemented his impact.

Throughout, Olsen's accomplishments have spread over Moraga's semirural environs like butter on toast: sometimes filling in the gaps; sometimes serving as smooth contrast to brittle underlayers.

"I bring a business management orientation to my community participation," the Stanford economics grad says. "My strengths are establishing a vision and a challenging goal, organizing a systematic timeline approach, and recruiting dedicated people."

Diplomacy may be an underrecognized tool when it comes to civic volunteerism, but Olsen employs it while answering a question about his abrupt resignation from the fire board in February 2012.

"It did not turn out to be the experience I anticipated -- let's say that," he suggests. "Therefore, I thought I could be more effective working from outside the board."


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The response reveals Olsen's dignified, determined citizenship, and reflects a work ethic he attributes to lessons learned from his parents while growing up on the Bay Area's peninsula.

His father was a volunteer fireman: Olsen remembers hanging out at the firehouse and worshiping the shiny red engines with crystal-clear bells. His absolute pitch thrilled at the tones, if not at the Baldwin baby grand piano he began to practice on at the age of 4.

"My mom felt musical training would be a big advantage. I was somewhat more ambivalent," he laughs. "Especially when I'd be home practicing when other kids were at the playground."

After not touching a piano for 40 years, he decided a primary focus upon retirement would be a return to the keyboards. Today, he participates in national and international amateur competitions and performs in concert settings.

"I'm on sabbatical right now, because of major thumb surgery," he laments.

While waiting to return to the Chopin, Debussy, Bach and Rachmaninoff repertoire he enjoys, Olsen's "piano action" will continue. He plans to dig the baby grand out of storage, have it refurbished, and donate it to a student in UC Berkeley's Young Musicians Program where he is board chair.

"It's a program for disadvantaged kids that offers music and academic support," Olsen says. "It's one of the most important things I do."

But it's not the only target on his actionable, volunteer radar: still front and center is the town where he and wife Candace raised their two children.

"The fire district needs to be put on a path for financial stability. The town must continue to protect its semirural environment and address completely the infrastructure (streets and sewer) needs. I can't praise Police Chief Bob Priebe enough, but the town's police force is underpaid and that creates huge turnover," he says.

It's a hefty fixer-upper list, for now, delivered without his beloved deadlines.

Fortunately, it comes with fine print: Olsen's definition of the term "citizen" and his promise to continue being one.

"A citizen is someone with a willingness to sacrifice and also contribute time and energy for the betterment of the community."

if you go
WHAT: Moraga Citizen of the Year dinner
WHEN: Friday, May 3; social hour at 6 p.m., followed by dinner at 7 p.m. and program at 8 p.m.
WHERE: Soda Center on the Saint Mary's College campus, 1928 St. Marys Road, Moraga
TICKETS: $45 per person; for reserve seating, send check to Kiwanis of Moraga Valley, 8 Thune Ave., Moraga, CA 94556. Checks should be made payable to Kiwanis.