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Swenson remembered for Twin Ports philanthropy

Jim Swenson (center) listens to remarks by Chancellor Kathryn Martin during the groundbreaking ceremonies for the Civil Engineering Building on the UMD campus in 2009. file / Duluth News Tribune1 / 2
Jim Swenson talks with biochemistry students who received his scholarships at the University of Minnesota Duluth in 1999. file / Duluth News Tribune2 / 2

Jim Swenson believed in paying forward the financial help he received in 1959 that allowed him to finish his chemistry degree at the University of Minnesota Duluth and have a successful career.

Swenson, a philanthropist who supported Twin Ports universities through donations, scholarships and grants, died Friday at his home in Dana Point, Calif. He was 81.

Along with his wife, Susan, Swenson helped fund the construction of the Swenson Civil Engineering and Swenson Science buildings at UMD, and Swenson Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, as well as being the namesake for UMD's Swenson College of Science and Engineering. Additionally, he helped fund the Swenson Center for Social and Behavior Sciences and the Swenson Science Center at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

He also helped hundreds of Twin Ports students through scholarships and research grants. People often don't get to do what they want in life and he felt fortunate that he was able to pursue what he wanted in life, leading him to want to help students, Susan Swenson said.

"I think his legacy would be to improve the life of students so that it will improve our society," she said. "One student at a time. It is amazing how much that goes on beyond that one student. That one student will maybe feel grateful enough to provide fellowship for some other student or two or three. It's a gift that keeps giving. It just never stops giving."

UMD Chancellor Lendley Black said that it's hard to describe Swenson because he was a multifaceted person. He was accomplished, but was humble and cared about people, Black said, adding, "He was a very warm, caring person. He was extremely bright."

Although he ran his own company in California, he always maintained his roots in the Twin Ports and that made him a comfortable person to be around, Black said.

"He was a very real person, a very honest person, very meticulous. He was a perfectionist with everything that he did, including with his garden and his model train collection. Always keeping on top of projects and making lists and making sure things were done. I admired that about him also," Black said.

The Swensons had a "tremendous" impact on UWS, Chancellor Renee Wachter said. Their support of university facilities and scholarships showed their "belief in empowering students and wanting them to succeed," she said. The scholarships and undergraduate research provided students with access to education and allowed students to attend UWS when they maybe wouldn't have been able to.

"But more importantly, I think he also served as a source of inspiration for them. When he would sit down and have a conversation with them, getting to know students, especially our new Swenson Scholars, they would always talk about that they would want to pay that forward. The gift that they would receive through his scholarship, they in turn would want to give that opportunity to others when they're able to, as they mature in their professional careers," Wachter said.

She said Swenson was "larger than life" and an "amazing" person. His influence wasn't solely on university campuses, but it extended into the communities to make an impact.

"I've never seen a man with such a big heart for wanting to see others succeed and just in the many ways that that heart manifested itself," she said. "We have lost a great man. I always say that if there were more people like him, the world would be a better place."

The importance of education was a lifelong value for Swenson, who was born in Superior in 1937. He was the oldest of five boys and lost his mother to cancer when he was in 12th grade. He went to work for his dad at Eddie's Bakery and cleaned carpets for his future father-in-law, according to News Tribune stories.

"He saw how hard it was there for people with no education and how people had to struggle if they weren't prepared for life. It was always his goal to finish college and help others," Susan said.

Swenson began at UWS before transferring to UMD. However, he didn't have the money to pay for his senior year. His friend and mentor, Superior banker Bob Banks, loaned him $700 of his personal money and said that he didn't need to pay him back until he got his first job after graduating from college, Susan Swenson said.

"It was the goodness of Bob's heart and friendship that made it possible for me to have everything I have now," Jim Swenson told the Duluth News Tribune in 1999. "I've been blessed with more than I ever thought possible. It's time to give some of that back."

After graduation, Swenson married his high school sweetheart Susan and took a job at Honeywell in the Twin Cities. Jim and Susan found out later that Banks had helped hundreds of students pay for school in the same way he helped Swenson.

"Bob Banks was a huge influence in Jim's life and Jim wanted to do that for other young people when he could. That was really the impetus of us getting involved with the schools and providing scholarships," Susan said.

After working several research jobs, Swenson created his company Details Inc. to produce prototype chips for circuit boards for clients that included Compaq, IBM, Apple and Motorola. He sold his company in the 1990s and focused on philanthropy in his retirement.

UMD wouldn't be what it is today without the Swensons' generosity, Black said. Their contributions assisted UMD in building the Swenson Science Building in 2005.

"This building had an incredible impact on our science department and helped, at that time, increase the college's enrollment from about 2,400 to about 3,300 students," Black said.

The couple also contributed to the construction of the Swenson Civil Engineering building, which allowed UMD to increase its civil engineering program and become a model facility, Black said.

At UWS, his donations supported Swenson Hall and the biology and chemistry departments, Wachter said.

But the full-ride Swenson Scholarships and summer research grants were "probably most dear to Jim's heart," Black said. Nearly 400 UMD students have received the scholarships and grants.

"Jim was always very proud of those students. He loved to speak to them every year," Black said, adding that Jim would speak annually to all the new Swenson College students and attended a luncheon with the scholarship and grant recipients. "He always loved getting to know the students. ... These students have done incredible things. Many of them have gone on to medical schools, pharmacy schools or they've gone into very successful scientific careers."