Olson became known as the California Governor who wasn’t afraid to admit he was an atheist. Instead of saying “so help me God” he conceived a plan whereby he would substitute the words “I affirm” when being sworn in as Governor of California. In defending his position he remarked, “God couldn’t help me at all, and there isn’t any such person.”
Planned to celebrate the opening of the Golden Gate and San Francisco-Oakland Bay bridges, the Golden Gate International Exposition opened on February 18, 1939. It’s theme, “A Pageant of the Pacific,” emphasized the unity, heritage and melding of cultures sharing the Pacific Ocean. Governor Olson used the fair to commemorate what he designated “Race Relations Day.“ In his opening remarks he declared, “Any one who generates racial hatred and social misunderstanding is a demagogue of the most subversive type.”
The newly elected governor soon discovered that his grand vision for California was going to run into difficulty. With a Legislature comprised mainly of “economy bloc” Democrats and conservative Republicans, it was evident that getting a majority of both houses on any major legislation would be very difficult, if not impossible to obtain. Stubborn and defiant he pushed for his progressive policies relying on the support of the people to be on his side. After leaving office, with victories few and hard-won, he described his time in office: “If you want to know what Hell is like, just try being governor of California.”
Completed and dedicated on December 30, 1940, the Arroyo Seco Freeway (also known as the Pasadena Freeway) is the oldest and one of the most important roads in American history. It ranks among one of the top ten examples of the New Deal infrastructure boom. At the dedication, Governor Olson stated, “It takes courage to do a thing the first time, no matter how simple and obvious it may appear after it is done. And this, fellow citizens, is the first freeway in the West.”
Some will argue that Governor Olson's greatest legacy was the outstanding people that he appointed to the state judiciary. Jesse W. Carter was appointed July 15, 1939 to the California Supreme Court. Five days before his appointment, an unexpected vacancy occured for which Phil S. Gibson was appointed. Roger J. Traynor was appointed in 1940. Preparing to leave office, Olson appointed B. Rey Schauer to the state Supreme Court and his executive secretary, Stanley Mosk, to the Los Angeles Superior Court. All four Olson appointees served on the bench over 17 years transforming it into a model of efficiency and compassionate justice. But it was the young Mosk, later appointed to the California Supreme Court by Governor Brown, who received the most notoriety. It is in his honor that the courthouse across the street from the state Capitol is named.
A record breaking crowd of 50,000 attended the ground breaking ceremony of the Friant Dam near Fresno, California, November 5, 1939. Speaking at the occasion were U.S. Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes and Governor Olson. Winning the greatest applause, the governor reaffirmed his belief in public ownership of utilities: “It is my firm conviction that the lowest costs for the major benefits...can be realized only under a comprehensive system of public ownership...it is now well known that these lowest costs are not possible under private ownership and exploitation.”