Wicomico leader Joe Ollinger remembered for community devotion

By Susan Canfora
Posted 8/30/22

Pam Ollinger’s voice brightened as she recalled the day she met her husband, Joe, after picking him up at the airport.

He had flown to Indianapolis, where she worked for the same company, to …

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Wicomico leader Joe Ollinger remembered for community devotion

Joe Ollinger.
Joe Ollinger.
Ollinger Family Photo

Pam Ollinger’s voice brightened as she recalled the day she met her husband, Joe, after picking him up at the airport.

He had flown to Indianapolis, where she worked for the same company, to handle a sales matter.

“It was love at first sight. Sometimes it’s just right,” she said.

“His looks, his demeanor. He was quiet but smart. He did  a great job on the sales call he came to handle. Ours was a good partnership,” she said.

When they met, they were both working for IBM, she in the Indianapolis office as a marketing representative and Ollinger in Dallas.

“I was going to greet him at the door of the airplane. We had talked on the phone before. We talked about the arrangements for the sales call and him coming in, and I said I’d be picking him up,” she said.

She wasn’t carrying a sign to identify herself but he knew who she was. He walked by her, then stood behind her and tapped her on the shoulder.

Earlier, he told her he’d be wearing cowboy boots.

“He asked what I would be wearing and I said, ‘A navy blue coat.’ He thought, ‘If that’s how she describes herself, there can’t be much there,’” she said with a laugh.

But there was. They were married nine months later when she was 23 and he was 33.

Their marriage lasted 41 years, until Ollinger died on Aug. 21 from pulmonary fibrosis, a disease his wife described as “not a pleasant way to have the end of your life happen.”

“But I can count on two or three fingers the times he complained in the nine months he was in hospice. On Sept. 15 he was walking three miles and on Dec. 15 he was in hospice.

“We thought it would be quick. That is when we really grieved, then he leveled off. He had an exacerbation, then it plateaued around February and we had a number of wonderful, precious months,” she said, expressing gratitude for the respiratory therapist she called “absolutely wonderful.”

Active all his life, Ollinger worked out at the YMCA regularly and took spin classes, although biking was his true love, his wife said.

“In hindsight, we think we started seeing signs of his illness in 2014. We traveled a lot and we always hiked. Joe would always be ahead of me and I would catch up, then off he’d go again,” she said.

But when they hiked in Switzerland, for the first time she was leading him.

They brushed it off as being due to the elevations and walking uphill.

He was going more slowly because he was  10 years older than his wife, they reasoned.

In 2019 they hiked in Big Bend in Texas.

“We came back from that and he started pursuing what was wrong. At first he had fatigue, then shortness of breath. With covid he stopped going out to exercise but we had an exercise bike and he still rode that and tried to keep doing yoga. His oxygen plummeted and we ended up in Mayo (Clinic) in January of 2020,” Mrs. Ollinger said.

Last year when they visited Vermont, he was still able to hike, but his wife would drive him to the top of a hill and he would walk down.

Friends and colleagues wouldn’t be surprised to learn Ollinger took his illness in stride, making the best of a difficult situation, not complaining and allowing the job of caregiver to be much easier.

Born in Detroit on May 8, 1946, he grew up in Saugerties, N.Y., and was employed by IBM in various cities for 18 years. In 1984, he moved to Salisbury to join Data Services as CEO and president and later as one of its owners.

After 20 years, he sold his half of the company and retired in 2004.

In 2010, he was the Republican candidate for Wicomico County Executive, narrowly losing to incumbent Rick Pollitt.

He formerly served as an appointed member of the Wicomico Board of Education and chaired the Greater Salisbury Committee.

“Throughout his life, he had a passion for adventuresome travel. With hiking boots on their feet, the clothes on their backs and the contents of a backpack apiece, Joe, along with his dear wife, Pam, perfected the art of traveling light,” his family wrote in his obituary.

“They hiked and explored many cities and countrysides of the U.S., Canada, Europe and also parts of Central and South America,” according to the obituary.

In 2000, to celebrate the new millennium, he bicycled 4,300 miles from the Atlantic Ocean at Ocean City to the Pacific Ocean at Oceanside, Ore.

He is survived by his children, Michael, Lisa, and Derrick and granddaughters Abigail and Ruby as well as other relatives.

Ollinger was the kind of father who wasn’t strict, but had high expectations.

“If you said you were going to do something, he expected you to do it. There was always dinner around the table, always conversation,” his wife said, recalling a foreign exchange student from Germany who lived with them. The young man lived in a commune in his country and Ollinger was conservative, making for conversation his wife described as “quite entertaining.”

“He was all about what’s best for the community and improving the community. He was always thinking, always coming up with ideas. He was smart,” his wife said.

Agreeing, Erica Joseph, President of the Community Foundation of the Eastern Shore, said Ollinger was “a dedicated friend of CFES for decades, serving on the board for 12 years, as treasurer for two and on our Asset Development Committee and Investment Committee in the many years since he retired from the board in 2010.”

“He just recently rotated off the Investment Committee due to his declining health,” she wrote in an email to colleagues, announcing Ollinger’s death.

“I always appreciated the opportunity to work with Joe.  He was diligent and the kind of board member that would always ask the tough questions but with the goal of moving the organization forward and making sure he was doing his job as a leader.

“I always appreciated that about Joe because it was an important function when you are helping to steer and steward an organization like ours. I could tell he took that responsibility very seriously and that it meant a lot to him to be able to lend his expertise,” Joseph said.

A memorial gathering is planned for Saturday, Sept. 10, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. in  Fellowship Hall at Asbury United Methodist Church. A buffet lunch will be provided.

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