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Bellingham man dies in paragliding accident near Samish Overlook

Skagit County Fire District 14 Chief David Skrinde, left, talks to other firefighters Wednesday afternoon, July 13, at a popular launch point on Blanchard Mountain. TJ Olney, 64, of Bellingham died from injuries suffered in a fall after launching his paraglider from the area.
Skagit County Fire District 14 Chief David Skrinde, left, talks to other firefighters Wednesday afternoon, July 13, at a popular launch point on Blanchard Mountain. TJ Olney, 64, of Bellingham died from injuries suffered in a fall after launching his paraglider from the area. Skagit Valley Herald

A longtime Western Washington University professor has died after a paragliding accident near Samish Overlook on Blanchard Mountain in Skagit County on Wednesday, July 13.

Thomas J. “TJ” Olney, 64, died from blunt-force injuries in the accident, said Hayley Thompson, Skagit County coroner. Olney was an associate professor of marketing at Western Washington University for the last 30 years and had retired just last month, said Craig Dunn, dean of the College of Business and Economics.

Olney, an experienced paraglider, took off from the overlook’s launch area at about 3 p.m. when the glider’s sail collapsed, said Chief David Skrinde of Skagit County Fire District 14. Olney fell to the ground, but Skrinde did not know how far he fell.

Olney had been gliding with a group of people at the time of the accident, Skrinde said.

Dunn described Olney as a professor who had devoted his life to teaching students rather than focusing on achieving his own accolades.

He was “very highly regarded” by students and fellow professors alike, Dunn said.

“He had very high standards for his students but they weren’t offended by that. He was a smart guy and he wanted them to be as smart as they could be as well,” Dunn said. “They came back very enriched through their engagements with TJ.”

There is some consolation knowing that he enjoyed the journey — he enjoyed life all the way.

Craig Dunn, dean of the College of Business and Economics at WWU

Dunn sent a letter notifying College of Business and Economics faculty and some WWU administrators of Olney’s death. It included a statement from Sandra Mottner, the college’s former associate dean.

“Without a doubt, TJ was one of the most brilliant people I have ever met,” Mottner said in the letter. “He was an amazingly wonderful and empathetic colleague as well as a gifted teacher. He believed in his students.”

Kyle Renninger, 25, was in his first quarter at Western when he took Olney’s “Introduction to Marketing” class. At the time, Renninger was considering a concentration in finance but settled on marketing after Olney’s class.

“He was just such a wealth of knowledge and the experience he brought really made it transforming,” Renninger said. “He was just a great guy and it’s definitely a sad loss.”

Renninger ended up taking two more classes with Olney, he said. He now runs his own marketing and consulting firm in Bellingham and says he still refers back to the lessons learned in Olney’s classes.

Dunn last spoke with Olney about a week ago as Olney was cleaning out his office in preparation for retirement. It was a difficult transition for Olney, Dunn said, recalling the conversation. But Olney remained optimistic about what would come next after three decades at Western.

Olney also hadn’t waited for retirement to begin enjoying life, Dunn said. He was known throughout the college as an avid paraglider.

“There is some consolation knowing that he enjoyed the journey — he enjoyed life all the way. That doesn’t take all of the sting out of the loss, but it helps,” Dunn said. “He loved soaring.”

Kyle Mittan: 360-756-2803, @KyleMittan

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