By Laura Silver
In 1946, newly returned from his wartime tour of the Pacific, Tom Swain (B.S.B. ’42) was offered the position of athletic scholastic adviser at the University of Minnesota. His charge: to help athletes, mostly returning veterans like himself, with their academic struggles. He persuaded college deans to readmit one such candidate—future NCAA champion and pro-wrestling impresario Verne Gagne (’48), who was, “to put it mildly, not a very diligent student,” Swain says.
The deans were harsher: “He’s stupid.” The tale of Gagne’s ultimate triumph—and last laugh—years later is just one of the many pleasures of Swain’s new book, Citizen Swain: Tales from a Minnesota Life, written with Lori Sturdevant.
Anyone who’s been around for 94 years and is as observant, well connected, and drily witty as Tom Swain is bound to come up with an entertaining memoir. But Citizen Swain is more than just a series of amusing anecdotes, although it certainly has those; it’s a behind-the-scenes look at the people and events that have shaped Minnesota, and a testament to the rewards of active citizenship. He has been a mayor, a University of Minnesota vice president, a chief of staff to former Minnesota governor Elmer L. Andersen (B.B.A. ’31), and a member and chair of numerous nonprofit and civic boards (including the Minnesota Health Care Commission, which instituted MinnesotaCare). In 1964, as a member of the GOP State Executive Committee, he and fellow progressive Republicans promoted an alternative candidate to Barry Goldwater, saving Minnesota’s Republican congressmen from the national Democratic landslide. And in 1969, after his young son-in-law, Pat Murray, a Marine navigator-bombardier, failed to return from a combat mission over Hanoi (he would ultimately be declared killed in action), Swain met with the North Vietnamese in Paris to represent families of American prisoners of war and those missing in action. If you want an inspirational lesson in the less-than-glamorous task of how to work with people to get things done for the betterment of all, listen to Tom Swain.
A fifth-generation Minnesotan, Swain was born in Minneapolis on the Fourth of July, 1921, the first of four boys, to Lucille Holliday, a song leader known locally as “Miss Pep,” and Earl Swain, a WWI vet and owner of a struggling Dinkytown coal and trucking business. His early years were filled with the enchantments of a free-range boyhood—exploring the “wild wonder” of Pearl Swamp (now Pearl Park) and making good use of the city’s extensive trolley system. There was also tragedy. Shortly after Swain graduated from Washburn High in 1938, his father left on a business trip, never to return; the family did not see him or hear from him again. Lucille took a job selling insurance so that her boys could continue their educations. Swain says he owes his success to his mother’s hard work and grit in those difficult years.
Swain’s life has been so multifaceted that it seems unfair to focus on one thing, but his service to and passion for the University of Minnesota stand out. He enrolled in 1938, has been an employee and volunteer, and remains involved to this day. Before his stint as chair of the Alumni Association board in the mid-1970s, alumni were not routinely asked to contribute. Unsurprisingly, Swain’s attitude was a bit different. “I concluded that it was time to make alumni aware of their obligation,” he says, “aware that citizens before them had paid the taxes that were making part of their education possible. This is the state’s most critical institution, and if it isn’t vibrant and functioning well, then the future of this state is less promising.”
Swain’s energy level and dedication continue to put mere mortals to shame. At 85 he ran for mayor of the City of Lilydale and won, serving two terms. The list of his past and current civic activities could make the book read like an extended résumé but, instead, it’s more like a conversation with a generous, smart, and self-deprecating friend—one who’s witnessed and embraced the enormous societal changes of the past 70 years. What’s kept him going? “It’s better to wear out than to rust out,” he says.