President Emeritus Robert Swanson dies at 91Dr. Robert Swanson, the longest-serving president in Alma College history who oversaw a period of remarkable growth for the College, died Friday, Sept. 15, 2006. He was 91 years old.
Swanson served as the ninth president of Alma College from 1956 through 1980.
“His 24-year tenure as president brought many positive changes that strengthened the College and its relationship with the community,” said Alma College President Saundra Tracy. “He is without a doubt one of the most important figures in the history of Alma College as well as a good friend to many members of the community.”
The funeral service, attended by more than 350 friends, alumni and former colleagues, took place at 11 a.m. Wednesday, Sept. 20, in the Dunning Memorial Chapel on the Alma College campus. Following the service, students, faculty and staff lined Superior Street in a show of respect and tribute during the procession to the cemetery.
When he retired as Alma’s president in June 1980, Dr. Swanson left as his presidential legacy a College he helped transform into a nationally recognized private liberal arts institution in terms of academic reputation, economic stability and physical plant.
He is quoted in the August 1980 Alma Alumni Piper as saying, “What happened at Alma happened because a tremendous number of competent, dedicated, hard-working, loyal people worked together. It’s been a very exciting quarter of a century, and I’m the luckiest guy on the face of the earth.”
Perhaps most significant during his tenure was the growth in the number and quality of students, faculty and educational programs. Student enrollment at Alma grew from 657 in 1956 to 1,212 in 1980, while the faculty grew from 38 to 72. The high school grade point average of entering freshmen increased from 2.34 in 1956 to 3.35 in 1979.
Swanson was a visible administrator with students. Each year during his presidency, Swanson invited the seniors to his home to share an evening meal, while freshmen were invited to his home for picnics during orientation week. With Alma’s 1979 homecoming “A Salute to Swannie,” student organizers ordered 2,500 buttons proclaiming, “How we love ya, Swannie.” The Student Council presented him a resolution of appreciation, and Sigma Beta, an Alma service fraternity, made him an honorary member.
Other advances during his presidency included the establishment of a procedure for granting tenure for faculty in 1959 and the adoption in 1974 of the current two-term calendar plus a one-month spring term.
A capstone to his presidency was the establishment in 1980 of a chapter of The Phi Beta Kappa Society, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious undergraduate honors organization — an action that served as a symbol of the academic strength that Alma College attained during his presidency. Today, Alma is one of only eight Michigan colleges and universities — and one of only 270 out of 4,411 colleges and universities in the nation, or 6 percent — to hold membership in The Phi Beta Kappa Society.
Swanson also was instrumental in building the College endowment to help secure the College’s future strength. The market value of the College endowment grew from $375,000 to more than $12 million during his presidency. Total college assets increased from $3.1 million to $33 million.
“I love the story Bob Swanson told about when, early in his presidency, he realized that the funding mechanisms that were in place at the College at that time were not going to be sustainable,” recalled President Tracy. “So he persuades three Board members to each give a million dollars, starting what is now our approximately $100 million endowment. He started it because he knew that the College simply could not sustain all it was doing on its own operating budget. It needed some other source of revenue that would be sustainable.”
Establishing good relations with the Alma community was a high priority for Swanson. During his time, the Alma Symphony Orchestra was established, and the College helped fund the Gratiot County Mental Health Program. Swanson also encouraged and supported the community’s annual Highland Festival, which began in 1968.
In 1974, he received the Order of the Tartan Award, the Alma Chamber of Commerce’s highest award. To recognize his contributions at the time of his retirement, various county governmental bodies declared June 7, 1980, as Robert D. Swanson Day in Gratiot County.
The Swanson presidency also marked a period of great campus expansion. Buildings constructed during his presidency included the Dow Science Center (1958), Mitchell Hall (1960), Newberry Hall (1961), Kehrl Building (1964), Bruske Hall (1967), Hamilton Commons (1967), Hogan Physical Education Center (1968), Wilcox Medical Center (1969), Bonbright, Brazell, Carey and Nisbet Halls (1970), the Swanson Academic Center (1974) and the Eddy Music Center (1975).
Prior to his Alma College presidency, Swanson was director of athletics and taught physical education at Park College from 1937-38; was ordained to ministry in the Presbyterian Church in 1941; was the pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church in Tulsa, Okla., from 1941 to 1945; was the dean of students at McCormick Seminary from 1946-47; and was vice president and professor of preaching at McCormick Seminary from 1948 to 1956.
Swanson enjoyed retirement in Alma with his wife, Dorothy.
The College celebrated his 90th birthday in August 2005 with a campus
reception. Many of his friends and former students told stories that
related their fond affection for him and the influence he had on their
“This is a heck of a fuss for an old goat, but I love it,” he said when encouraged to speak to the faculty, staff, friends, trustees and alumni who gathered in the Tyler-Van Dusen Campus Center Rotunda.
“You never quit working for Alma College,” said Nancy Gallagher ’80, a member of the Alma College Board of Trustees. “You have been the face of Alma College around the community for all these years.”
Past articles by Charlotte Schmidtke and Gordon Beld and information from “Within Our Bounds: A Centennial History of Alma College” contributed to this story.
Posted: Sat, September 16th, 2006 at 12:54PM