Ernest Conrad Olsen of Aquebogue died at his home Oct. 5, 2018, surrounded by his family. He was 91 years old.
He was born in Brooklyn on Feb. 28, 1927, the son of Norwegian immigrants Emily (Carlson) and Karl Olsen. His father was a seaman on a Norwegian ship and an illegal immigrant to the U.S. who had jumped ship in New York City. Karl Olsen was a skilled carpenter and home builder. He established a diary farm in Litchfield, Connecticut called the Viking Farm, where Ernie and his older brother Robert and younger sister Judith spent their childhood years. The family lost the farm during the Great Depression and moved back to Brooklyn, where they lived with extended family in a brownstone in Bay Ridge.
Olsen had inherited his family’s love of flowers and entered the industry as a young teenager in Brooklyn.
In 1944, after serving a year as a deck boy on the Norwegian HMS Asta, sailing the North Atlantic and the Caribbean, he joined the U.S. Merchant Marines and sailed around the globe, visiting ports in France, England, Italy, Africa, New Guinea, the Admiralty Islands and Guadalcanal. He rose in rank from deck boy to third mate and received the Victory Metal, Honorable Service Button and Presidential Testimonial Letter.
After his discharge in 1948, he enrolled in the ornamental horticulture program at Farmingdale College — without G.I. Bill benefits because the Merchant Marines who served during World War II were not recognized as U.S. military veterans until January 1988, after a decades-long legal battle. Olsen lived first in a barn with a roommate while a student at Farmingdale, then at a boarding house in Wantaugh.
In the summer of 1950, Olga, who ran the boarding house, set up a blind double-date for Olsen and another man. That was how he met his future wife Elaine. She was supposed to be “the other guy’s date, Ernie guided me into the back seat with him,” she recalls. They were married on Feb. 24, 1951. He was drafted into the U.S. Army and told family and friends he did not want Elaine to get away.
Olsen served in the 191st Field Artillery Battalion and was stationed at Camp Drum in Watertown, N.Y. where he trained as a forward observer. He served as a cook at West Point.
Following his discharge from the Army in 1953, with a wife and new baby, Olsen returned to Farmingdale to continue his studies. He finished his degree at Farmingdale and worked for Durenheim Greenhouses. He also served in the Army Reserve.
In 1954, following the birth of their second child, Olsen decided to go into the greenhouse business on his own. He had sailed the world and decided to locate in Aquebogue. He bought Homeside Florist in August 1954. The property had one 1937 greenhouse and shipping shed and a house with no indoor plumbing. On his first day as the new owner of Homeside, a wedding party showed up looking for their for flowers. The previous owner had taken their order and never told Olsen, who found himself scrambling to fill it. The bride and groom and their family became “customers for life,” Elaine Olsen recalled.
With the help of his father and brother and his cousin Leif, Olsen built a home on the property, where he raised his family and lived until his death early Friday morning.
“He established and worked his dream at Homeside Florist for the rest of his life — 60 years,” Elaine Olsen said. He used to say he “never worked a day of his life” because he loved his work and spent every day with his wife.
Married 67 years, he still referred to Elaine as “my lovely bride.” Theirs was a lifelong love affair. He would always ask his children, “Isn’t your mother beautiful?” they recall. Ernie and Elaine had lunch together every day. At the lunch hour, he would announce, “I’m going to dine with my beloved,” and he’d walk over to the family home for a mid-day meal with Elaine.
Olsen loved and was loved by his customers, his family recalls. He forged lifelong friendships and loyal business relationships at the Aquebogue greenhouses and garden center. In the early years, farmers paid with produce, Elaine Olsen recalled.
He conducted many programs in the community, teaching everything from how to make holiday arrangements and wreaths to creating dish gardens. He loved giving tours and lessons to 4-H groups and Brownie troops.
At Homeside Florist, Olsen passed the baton to his children, Andrea and Kris, but still came to work in the greenhouses every day and visit with customers until two years ago, when Alzheimer’s disease took its toll, Kris Olsen said.
Olsen was a proud Freemason for 66 years and a member of the Riverhead Lodge No. 645. He was a charter member and past president of the Peconic Sons of Norway. He was also a member and past officer of the L.I. Flower Growers Association and a member of the Retail Florists Association.
He enjoyed trips to NYC, especially to see the tall ships in port and the Viking Festival-Norwegian Day Parade. He also enjoyed the two trips he took to Norway and Iceland.
A proud World War II veteran, he was on an honor flight with his grandsons Matt Dinizio and Charles Olsen on Oct. 1, 2011 and saw the World War II Memorial dedicated to “the greatest generation.” He was very touched by the high school bands honoring the veterans that day, his wife said.
“We know him as artistic, creative, resourceful, stubborn, friendly and a story teller who loved ‘unique’ people,” his family said in a statement. “He was a do-it-yourself-er” and a hard worker with an unstoppable work ethic.
Olsen was an avid reader who loved to discuss philosophy and progressive ideas, his family said.
“He encouraged others to dream big and live it,” his wife said. “He was a great listener” whom others found easy to talk to. “He drew out stories,” she said.
“Ole,” as he was known to his friends, “was accepting of all people,” Elaine Olsen said. “He did not see your packaging. He just saw you.”
In addition to his wife of 67 years, Olsen is survived by his children: Andrea (Robert) Hanulec, Sondra Furedy, Kris (Colleen) Olsen, and Penny (Bo) Goodale. He is also survived by his grandchildren: Matt (Katie) Dinizio, Stephanie (Kenny) Woychuk, Michael Hanulec, Erica Olsen, Emily (Matt) Huntley, Ian (Lauren) Olsen, Eliza (Charlie) Machek, Andrew (Britteny Anderson) Olsen; Charles (Kayla Meier) Olsen; Luke (Danielle Green) Furedy; and by 13 great-grandchildren.
The family will receive visitors on Tuesday, Oct. 9 from 4 to 7 p.m. at McLaughlin Heppner Funeral Home in Riverhead. A funeral service will be held Wednesday at 10 a.m. at Old Steeple Community Church in Aquebogue. Interment will follow at Calverton National Cemetery.
In memory of Ernie, send flowers to someone you love.