George H. Olmsted

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Major General George H. Olmsted (March 18, 1901, Des Moines, Iowa - October 8, 1998)[1] was an American military officer and insurance executive.

Early life[edit]

He was the second of four children of Ernest and Alice Lockwood Olmsted, graduated from West High School in Des Moines and attended Iowa State University briefly during the fall of 1918 before receiving his appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point on November 4, 1918.

West Point[edit]

During his four year attendance at West Point, he was President of his class for three years. He graduated on June 22, 1922 holding the position of First Captain of the Corps of Cadets, ranking second in his class academically. He also served as Chairman of the Student Honor Committee and Assistant Business Manager of the Howitzer, the annual yearbook. In athletics, General Olmsted was the featherweight boxing champion of the Academy and won his varsity "A" as manager and second string quarterback of the 1922 Army football team.

Civilian interlude[edit]

After graduation, Lieutenant Olmsted served in the active army until October 1923 when he returned to civilian life in Des Moines to enter business with his father who was running a small insurance agency.

By the beginning of 1924, they had expanded the agency into a general line fire and casualty agency named Olmsted & Olmsted. In September 1924, he married Virginia Camp, his high school sweetheart and left his father to start his own firm, Olmsted Inc. Agency. By 1928, his business had grown sufficiently to enable him to make his first purchase of another company, Travelers Mutual Casualty Company of Des Moines.

Attracting a great following among the younger businessmen of Des Moines, George Olmsted was elected President of the Junior Chamber of Commerce of Des Moines in 1927 and in 1929 was elected President of the National Junior Chamber of Commerce. A notable accomplishment during his tenure was the establishment of the "Outstanding Young Man of the Year" award. He attracted the attention of prominent persons at the national level of the Republican Party and was invited to meet with President Herbert Hoover at the White House. The President asked him to direct the activities of the Young Republican Division of the party in the upcoming general election of 1932 which he did. After the election, he continued to direct the Division until it evolved into the Young Republican National Committee which elected him its first President. He later served as the head of the Young Republican National Federation, now the College Republican National Committee.

Travelers Mutual struggled through the depression years becoming one of the first companies to offer insurance and premium financing to the fledgling long haul trucking industry. Operations were expanded into Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, and Illinois. In 1938, George Olmsted purchased the United Automobile Insurance Company of Grand Rapids, Michigan and the Hawkeye Casualty Company of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. This was followed in 1940 by the purchase of the Illinois Casualty Company of Springfield, Illinois. Operating headquarters for all of the companies were consolidated in Des Moines and a management team was established that would carry the companies through the hard years to come.

World War II[edit]

Recalled to active service in the Army in January 1942, then Major Olmsted commanded the Requirements and Assignments Branch, International Division, Army Service Forces which handled Lend Lease requests from allied governments for Army material and equipment. In this position he had to balance the complex, simultaneous equations of American industrial production schedules and capacity, American military requirements, urgent requests for help from allied governments and the demands of the current strategic situation. Frantic appeals were coming to the United States from Great Britain, the Soviet Union, China, and Free French Forces in North Africa. All of these appeals had to be dealt with as rapidly or as diplomatically as possible. In addition, Major Olmsted established programs to ensure delivery of assistance to the correct place at the promised time as well as programs to train the recipients in the use and maintenance of the equipment.

In 1944, then Colonel Olmsted's wife Virginia died. Shortly thereafter he was sent to China to serve on the staff of General Albert Wedemeyer and to establish a new general staff section known as G-5 for the China-Burma-India Theater. Colonel Olmsted was promoted to Brigadier General and took command of the G-5 section which was responsible for civil (Economic and Political) affairs, lend lease operations, training of allied military forces, and clandestine operations.

As World War II came to a close in the Pacific, a new situation faced the allies in China. Thousands of allied prisoners of war (including General Jonathan Wainwright, the hero of Bataan) were being held in eleven Japanese POW camps in China. Working with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), US Navy Intelligence, and allied intelligence services, the locations of all eleven camps were pinpointed and General Olmsted was ordered to plan and direct an operation to notify the Japanese as soon as a surrender had been announced and to ensure that they cooperated in the safe repatriation of the prisoners. His plan called for leaflets to be dropped by aircraft on each camp immediately after the surrender. Shortly after that, a team of seven unarmed men were to parachute into each camp carrying with them letters signed by General Wedemeyer addressed to the Japanese camp commander by name. The letters stated that the war was over, that the allied powers would hold the camp commander personally responsible for the safety of the prisoners and that he should fully cooperate in an immediate repatriation. No one was quite sure how the Japanese would react to this. However, the operation was carried out as planned, there were no hostilities, no one was injured, and the Japanese agreed to cooperate fully.

The last great problem to face General Olmsted in China was what to do with the surplus equipment that had to be left behind in the Theater as American forces departed to come home. Not wishing to see all that stuff abandoned in place, General Olmsted managed to work out a bulk sale to the Chinese government. When he heard about it, President Truman was reported to have said, "this was the best liquidation of surplus US equipment anywhere in the world".

For his services during World War II, General Olmsted received the Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit, and the Bronze Star Medal. From the French government he received the Legion of Honor, the British Government made him an Honorary Commander of the Order of the British Empire, and the government of China honored him with the Order of the Sacred Tripod and the Special Order of Pao Ting.

Post war[edit]

General Olmsted with United World Federalists Florida Delegates
General Olmsted with members from the United World Federalists Florida Branch at the national organization's 1952 annual meeting

General Olmsted returned to Des Moines in 1946. The management team that he had built in his companies before leaving for military service had performed well during the war years and his return became a matter of picking up where he had left off. After an unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination for governor of Iowa in 1947, he continued to expand his business activities and became a partner in the Equity Corporation in New York. He became a leader in the United World Federalists in 1947, later serving as a national vice-president of the organization. In 1948 he met Carol Shearing of Marilla, New York and they were married in 1949. Recalled to active duty with the Army in 1950, General Olmsted assumed command of the Army's military assistance operations. Once again, it was a case of finding the equipment and resources that Allied Governments requested and getting it to them. So successful were his activities that he was promoted to Major General in 1951 and assigned to the Office of the Secretary of Defense to assume command of all US government military assistance be it Army, Navy, or Air Force. Released from active service in 1953, Olmsted returned to Des Moines to resume his business career. He continued, however, to serve in the Army Reserve and was the Commanding General of the 103rd Infantry Division USAR from 1953 to 1959.

Shortly after his separation from active duty in 1953, General Olmsted bought control of United Services Life Insurance Company, which wrote life insurance for officers of the military services. In 1955, he purchased control of International Bank of Washington. In 1959, he purchased Financial General Bankshares, the 7th largest bank holding company in the country, from his partners at the Equity Corporation. The final form for Olmsted's business ventures had come into being. All of the companies were grouped under International Bank or Financial General, both of which were headquartered in Washington, D.C.

International Bank was headquartered in a building at 1701 Pennsylvania Avenue (diagonally across from the Old Executive Office Building and the White House) in Washington and controlled the activities of several companies which were separated into five operating groups:

  1. The Life Insurance Group -United Services Life Insurance Company/Bankers Security Life Insurance Society.
  2. The Property and Casualty Insurance Group -Hawkeye-Security Insurance Company and the other insurance companies in Des Moines.
  3. The International Maritime Group -The International Trust Company of Liberia which administered the registration of vessels under the Liberian flag.
  4. The International Banking Group -Ownership interests with local partners in commercial banks in 10 foreign countries.
  5. The Industrial Group -Globe Industries, Kliklok Corporation, Avis Industrial Corporation, and a 16% ownership of Foster Wheeler Corporation.

Financial General was a domestic bank holding company which held controlling interests in 26 banks located in seven states and the District of Columbia. It was one of the few banks in the country that had been grandfathered to do business across state lines after the McFadden Act largely banned interstate banking. In 1966, following years of criticism from other banks, the Federal Reserve ruled that Financial General was a bank holding company, and as such could not be owned by International Bank (which despite its name was largely an insurance company). Olmsted was ordered to sell off Financial General by 1978. It eventually went to a group of Arab investors who were actually nominees for the Bank of Credit and Commerce International. This group changed FGB's name to First American Bankshares, which would remain a secret subsidiary of BCCI until the latter's shutdown in 1991.

Throughout his career, General Olmsted worked with colleges and universities and sought to enhance the availability and quality of higher education for all people. He served on the Board of Trustees at Drake University in Des Moines, the American University in Washington, the West Point Association of Graduates, the West Point Alumni Foundation, and from 1973 to 1978, at the appointment of President Nixon, on the Board of Visitors at West Point. He has been honored with degrees from several universities: Doctor of Laws -Drake University. Doctor of International Relations -Southeastern University[disambiguation needed]. Doctor of Business Administration -Iowa Wesleyan College. Doctor of Commercial Science -Coe College.

George and Carol Olmsted Foundation[edit]

In 1959, General Olmsted and his wife Carol established the George Olmsted Foundation. The foundation later changed its name to the George and Carol Olmsted foundation. The principal activity of the Foundation is The Olmsted Scholar Program. Working with the support and cooperation of the Department of Defense and the Departments of the Army, Navy, and Air Force, the Program offers financial grants to outstanding young officers that are graduates of the three service academies, ROTC programs or OCS/OTS, for two years of graduate study and educational travel in a non-English speaking foreign country.

Each year, a number of young officers (currently there are approximately 18-20 officers selected each year) are competitively selected. They enroll as full-time, resident students at a foreign university of their choice which has been approved by their service and the Foundation Board Of Directors. While they may choose their course of study with the approval of their service, it is generally preferred that they study in a non-technical curriculum. Studies are usually conducted in the language of the country in which the university is located, except in rare cases where the language of instruction may be English but the surrounding culture is non-English speaking. Scholars are expected to travel extensively throughout the region where the university is located interacting with the residents and learning as much as they can about local customs, traditions and history.

Since 1959, 600 officers have been selected as Olmsted Scholars. They have attended over 200 different universities located in 60 different countries. Today, there are 40 general or flag rank officers either active or retired who have been Olmsted Scholars, including one former Chief of Naval operations, the last Commander-in-Chief of the Strategic Air Command and former commander of United States Central Command (CENTCOM), General John Abizaid.

Throughout General Olmsted's long career, he had been a champion of the concepts of better education, jobs, and opportunities for all people. In the fields of banking and insurance, he brought availability and affordability of products and services to a market that was battered by the Great Depression. He carried on the dream of Arthur J. Morris, the founder of Financial General Corporation, that "anyone who has a steady job can qualify for installment credit from a bank".

Olmsted died in October 1998 after a long period of incapacitation due to a stroke in the mid-1980s. He was survived by three children, eight grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren, and the enduring legacy of 440 plus Olmsted Scholars.

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