Oberlin graduate (1906), Christian layman, YMCA leader, and social worker before his time, John Griffith Olmstead's life was spent serving others. Olmstead's work with the YMCA, the Oberlin Alumni Association, and the Cincinnati Citizenship Council exemplified the Oberlin ethic of education and service at work.
Born to Icabod Allen Olmstead and Mary Christeen Olmstead on 17 September 1882 in Wayne, New York, John G. Olmstead grew up in an environment which emphasized living a life of personal and social responsibility. After attending the Elmira Free Academy in Elmira, New York, Olmstead came to Oberlin where he obtained his A.B. degree in 1906. While a student, Olmstead lettered in track and played center on Oberlin's first basketball team. His other extracurricular activities included acting as manager for the College Debate team and being president of the Union Literary Association. In his freshman year, Olmstead's roommate was Sinclair Lewis. Olmstead also became good friends with classmate H.H. Kung, with whom he supported the formation of the Ming Hsien College of China in 1907.
Upon graduation, Olmstead returned to Elmira, New York, to oversee his family's coal and wood business while his father was recuperating from an illness. At the urging of teacher and mentor Edward Increase Bosworth, Olmstead returned to Oberlin in 1907 to become the Oberlin College General Secretary of the YMCA. During this time he spent a year studying at the Oberlin School of Theology, and also served as the coach of the varsity basketball team.
Beginning with his work for the Oberlin YMCA in 1907, Olmstead began a twenty-five year career with the YMCA in which he actively supported its mission to nurture the spiritual, social, and physical development of young men. Serving in middle and upper management positions at Ohio State University (1909-1911), in New York City (1911-1914, 1921-1925), Providence, RI (1914-1918), and Winchester, MA (1918-1919), Olmstead was involved in YMCA administration, vocational programs, and war work. During this time period, Olmstead spent a short time (1919-1920) working as a personnel officer for the Interchurch World Movement of New York.
In 1925, Olmstead left the YMCA to return to Oberlin College and succeed William S. Ament (Oberlin College A.B. 1910) as the Executive Secretary of the Oberlin Alumni Association and editor of the Oberlin Alumni Magazine. In 1932, he left this post to create the Olmstead Travel Camp for Girls which he and his wife, Louise, operated between 1932 and 1935.
From 1935 to 1943, Olmstead served as Assistant State Supervisor of Education for Ohio, a position coming under the jurisdiction of the WPA. In 1934, Olmstead also served the FERA Lorain County Relief Commission where he acted as the Lorain County Educational Supervisor and headed the Lorain County Emergency Schools program. Olmstead was also involved in the Lorain County National Youth Administration program.
In 1943, Olmstead became the Director of Citizenship Council of Cincinnati where he served until his death on 3 February 1956. As director of the Citizenship Council, Olmstead was active in helping immigrants settle and find work in the Cincinnati area.
Olmstead remained present in Oberlin alumni affairs after leaving the college in 1932. He was an active leader in several of the College's development campaigns, serving as the New Jersey Chairman for the 1923 campaign and the Cincinnati Chairman for the 1952-1953 campaign. He also served as the President of the Oberlin Alumni Club President's Council, and was the President of the Cincinnati Oberlin Alumni Club from 1952 to 1955.
Olmstead's other civic contributions included serving as the President of the American Alumni Council (1930-1931), and being a trustee on the Oberlin Shansi Memorial Association from 1925 to 1949. An active Presbyterian, Olmstead served as an elder at College Hill Church in Cincinnati, and acted as the President of the Presbyterian Men of Greater Cincinnati.
In June of 1909, Olmstead married Elmira native Suzanna Louise Hutchinson. Born in 1883, Louise was the daughter of Frederick William Hutchinson and Jane Jones Hutchinson. Louise received an A.B. from Ohio State University (1923), and an A.M. in French from Oberlin College (1931). John and Louise had four children, John Griffith Olmstead Jr. (b. 1911), Louis Hutchinson Olmstead (1913-1914), Gardiner Hutchinson Olmstead (b. 1915 and died as newborn), and Allen MacConnell Olmstead (b. 1918). John Griffith Olmstead Jr. attended Oberlin College between 1928-29 and 1930-32.
A photograph and biographical information about John
G. Olmstead are included in the digital collection “Oberlin
College and Military Service in World War I,” presented
by the Oberlin College Archives.