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Thursday, January 6th, 2005 -- 2:34 PM

Friends, family, comrades and community gathered inside the Loyal high school gymnasium to bid farewell to a leader of men last night. As you know by now, Staff Sgt. Todd Olson, 36, Loyal, died in a Tikrit, Iraq, hospital on Monday, December 27th.

Organizers of last night?s public visitation and funeral service never could have imagined the outpouring of support shown to his family as 1,800 people filled every available space in the gymnasium, and even sat in the lobby peering in through open doors -- another 400-500 had to be turned away for lack of seating.

Loyal is a community of only 1,200 people.

But the community pride in their fallen hero was seen even on the drive to the ceremony, as nearly every home in Loyal is now adorned with symbols of support: yellow, and red, white and blue ribbons and newspaper inserts with Olson?s picture.

Governor Jim Doyle was one of many speakers to offer his condolences to Todd?s widow Nancy, Todd?s 4 children and parents, Don and Shirley.

"There are a lot of small towns in this state - I don't know of any that have a better name," Gov. Doyle said, "Just as Todd was born and raised in Loyal, he lived a life of loyalty to his family, friends, community, his state and his country."

"When he was called to active duty, he regretted leaving his family and his Loyal community, but he did what his duty called him to do: to serve his country."

Olson was one of 680 soldiers of the 1st battalion, 128th infantry regiment called to serve in Iraq. He is the second member of the Wisconsin National Guard killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom; he is believed to be the first member of a Wisconsin National Guard combat unit killed since World War II ? but on Wednesday night, Olson was remembered for his leadership in the community he loved, not just on the battlefield; Loyal Mayor Art Olsen recounted his service to his hometown: Olson was a Pop Warner football coach, school board member, past president of the Lions Club and the Chamber of Commerce.

"All this while, he was a caring husband, a loving father and certainly a family man and a true friend to many of us," Olsen said.

"If he could look down on the turnout here tonight, he would look down on us and smile. It's just overwhelming."

Throughout the ceremony, spiritual and patriotic music provided a fitting interlude to the remembrances of a fallen hero.

Olson was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart, Bronze Star and other medals and badges.

Lifelong friend and family spokesperson Dan Gluch told WCCN/WPKG News that Wednesday was a day of mixed emotions for those that knew Todd best.

"But I have noticed there are stories being told with smiling faces and laughter, too, and that's a real tribute to Todd as well, because that's who he was," Gluch said.

He said the lesson of Todd?s life is that people should get involved and care about their community.

The ceremony ended with the playing of taps and the folding of the American Flag, which was presented to Nancy, and the entire crowd singing 'Amazing Grace'.

The program encouraged everyone to keep the soldiers of the 128th in their prayers.

Feel free to contact us with questions and/or comments.