Cooper Olson is nostalgic. Dare the word “sappy” slide into the conversation?
“Everybody knows that about me,” he said. “Everybody makes fun of me for being nostalgic for even the bad times in my life, but particularly Topeka. I really love being from here.”
Olson, 46, hasn’t lived in Topeka — where he grew up and graduated from Topeka High School — for almost 30 years. He left after high school to attend college in Boston, then lived across the country from Chicago to Portland, Ore. Now he is firmly planted in Los Angeles.
But he still yearns for his hometown, which he visits at least once a year to see his parents and drop in on friends. And now he has found a way to indulge his love for the Sunflower State’s capital.
It began when he fondly recalled visiting the Adventure Center, a field trip many graduates of Unified School District 501 remember as an experimental kind of educational adventure that taught kids for two weeks about living in the real world. They were merchants one week and buyers the next, learning to write checks, Olson said.
On eBay, Olson discovered an iron-on logo for Adventure Center up for sale. He won the bid.
“It wasn’t easy, by the way,” he said, laughing. “It was one of those things that it was like $3 right up until the end and then it was $50. Obviously, I was pitted against someone just like me.”
He had already started a Facebook page devoted to the Adventure Center and the memories it stirred, so Olson reached out to the group, which now numbers over 1,000 people, to ask if anyone would like a shirt with the logo on it. After a few resounding yeses, he became TopCityMotherland on Tee Public, creating nostalgic T-shirts highlighting Topeka businesses.
You’ll find the oldies but goodies of Topeka there — Cool Clyde’s Waterslide and Miniature Golf, P’ore Richards Cafe, White Lakes Mall, The Chief Drive-in and Show Biz Pizza Place.
He is quick to say he isn’t making much money off the T-shirts, calling this his “labor of love.”
“I make $2 a shirt. I’m not doing this to be a Topeka T-shirt millionaire,” he said. “It really is just to keep these places alive. I know that people my age, and not only people in Topeka but people who have moved away from Topeka, remember these places and love them and talk about them.”
He has had proof of that in the number of people who have reached out to him and offered to go to the library and find logos. Enthusiasm for the shirts has shown Olson he isn’t alone in his nostalgia.
“My favorite thing about this, my very favorite thing, is the site I’m working with sells children’s sizes,” he said. “They even have onesies for babies. The idea that people can not just keep these things alive but pass them on to the next generation, to have their kids walk around in the Mother Earth T-shirt or a Moods Unlimited onesie for a baby, I just think that’s great. I love the idea that these things can live on and be in Topeka again. My little tagline for this thing is ‘Topeka the way I like to remember it.’ ”
In L.A., Olson works in advertising, writing commercials and creating print campaigns. On that level, he has enjoyed the plunge back into advertising of the past.
“Right now, it’s considered bad form in advertising for something to look like an ad,” he said. “But to go back and look at things from the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s, when people would draw their own kind of characters — there was competition in Topeka back then. When you see it on the page, you can see the people were sort of competing with each other for the best kind of cutest character or coolest sort of tagline.”
He sees businesses that were clever in their advertising and those that didn’t do so well. P’ore Richards, he said, was fantastic and creative in its work.
The T-shirts he Olson has created have kept him connected with his hometown.
“I’m filled with enthusiasm for Topeka,” Olson said. “It stays a certain way in my mind, even though now I’m definitely old enough to see real changes in Topeka. For a long time, it didn’t change, and that’s what I loved about it. Now it has. Everything — economically, geographically, culturally. Everything is different.”
But when he comes home, he still reverts to the 17-year-old young man he was when he left.
“You immediately turn back into a teenager,” Olson said. “You’re staying in your parent’s room, you’re driving your parent’s car. You’re going around to the same places where you used to live in high school that your friends come and visit now. There’s a part of me that you just slip right back into.”
Yep. Unashamedly nostalgic.