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Swensen family produces successful alumni

December 4, 2008

There is something to be said for school spirit. But for Richard and Grace Swensen, that spirit runs far deeper than a school sweatshirt and subscription to the alumni newsletter. The couple has dedicated their lives to serving UW-River Falls, as well as the surrounding city, and seeing their six children graduate from the University.

Dick and Grace first met on the Wartburg Lutheran College campus in Waverly, Iowa, the couple said in their Arden Hills, Minn., home. Grace was attending classes there towards her degree in medical technology, and Dick was starting graduate school along with working for the Atomic Energy Commission. Dick wanted to take a break before finishing up his doctorate and the couple was informed of a six-month position opening up at UWRF by   Grace’s brother Glen Hartman, a sophomore at the time. Dick interviewed and was hired to a temporary position teaching math and physics in 1955.

“I was so stricken with the campus and the collegiate community… we came for six months and stayed for four years,” Dick said.

In 1959, Dick and Grace returned to Iowa so he could finish up his doctorate. Upon receiving his it, Dick received a National Institute of Health research grant to study physical chemistry at the University of Iowa in 1960. He moved that research to Duke University in 1961.

“I returned to UWRF in June of 1961 as a straight chemistry professor, and stayed until I retired in 1993,” Dick said.

Upon their return, Grace began taking classes again to finish her degree. In 1964, she graduated with a degree in medical technology, a major no longer offered on campus. Grace was the first in the family to graduate from UWRF, just beating her brother.

“I was just so impressed with the faculty,” Grace said. “They were so well-read, fostering a culture of exchanging viewpoints and information, providing wonderful experience for the students and giving them a great world view.”

A few years after returning to campus, in 1967, Dick began to serve the first of two terms as the chair of the University Faculty Council, the precursor to the present Faculty Senate.

“Even though I served two terms, I never really thought about pursuing any positions in administration,” Dick said. “Then, the dean resigned, but I still didn’t think about applying because my goal in life was to teach. But if my peers thought I could, and they encouraged me, then I knew I could do it.”

Dick became the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences in 1969. He served in that role until 1988, when he stepped down and went back to the classroom, serving out his remaining five years as a chemistry professor.

In 1970, Dick was chosen to receive the Distinguished Teacher award for his service to campus and the students.

“The award is the highest honor that this University can bestow upon one of its educators,” Dan McGinty, the head of the Office of University Advancement, said.

But the Swensens’ contributions to UWRF extend far beyond Dick’s work in the classroom.

“After I graduated, I began to get involved in a lot of volunteer work,” Grace said.

In 1978, Grace organized a program that resettled refugees from the Vietnam War.  The program, which was run through the State Department, consisted of seven churches that Grace formed into a coalition called the Western Wisconsin Refugee Orientation Center. The WWROC settled several hundred refugees in the St. Croix region and the Twin Cities, most of who had escaped from internment camps. Many of the refugees that were helped were Hmong due to the tremendous support given to American downed pilots by the Hmong people, Grace said.

“I was so very happy,” Grace said. “For me this was a mission and the city of River Falls responded so beautifully. We got near 50 volunteers to help in the efforts.”

Grace’s work with the church was the result of deeply religious upbringing. That, coupled with President Reagan’s new refugee laws that meant incoming refugees did not require as much institutional assistance, allowed Grace to finally attend the Luther Seminary and become an ordained Lutheran minister.

“It was something I had always wanted to do since I was a child,” Grace said. “But growing up as a girl in the 40s and 50s, I was never able to.”

Grace ministered in Menomonie and Baldwin, Wis. until November of 2004. She still fills in as a guest minister from time to time if a local church needs her to.

The Swensens also focused on projects that directly affected the University. In 1961, Dick and Grace contracted with the local theater and started a foreign film series. The series would show five to six foreign films a year, each year focusing on a different theme, such as one year’s emphasis on the works of Ingmar Bergman.

“The theater was wonderful to work with,” Dick said. “And showing the films there allowed us to present them in the native 35mm format.”

In the summer of 1970, the Swensens took a family vacation to Europe. Dick, Grace and their six children spent one month backpacking around the continent, splitting their nights between local hostels and a 9-by-12 cabin tent. While there, Grace was able to network with a multitude of international performers.

When she returned to the states, Grace became so inspired by her trip she began organizing home-stays for as many as the performers she met with as would visit. A home-stay is much like a foreign exchange program, in which a visitor from another country stays with a family in their house in the states. Grace’s efforts brought over 60 performing groups from 13 different countries to River Falls, resulting in over 1,300 home-stays.

“I wanted to counter the negative image the world had gained through their exposure to us on TV,” Grace said. “I also wanted to show them the heartland of the U.S., because the only places shown on TV were the east and west coasts. And in doing so, I was able to share with UWRF some of the culture and world view I had been honored to experience overseas.”

The groups that the Swensens brought were varied, ranging from small town performance groups to internationally renowned acts, such as the Copenhagen Boys Choir.

“And they all performed right in KFA,” Grace said. “Can you imagine that? Some of the grandest acts in the world, people that perform in large cities and for world leaders, and they performed at River Falls!”

The Swensens leave another, more tangible and readily recognizable, legacy on the UWRF campus. In 1973, Dick approached the physics department about constructing a sundial to be placed on the outside wall of KFA.

“After KFA was built, I was looking at it one day and thought ‘we need something for this wall,’” Dick said. “I had gained an interest in sundials while visiting Heidelberg, Germany, and thought a sundial would be perfect for the space.”

The initial designs for the sundial were deemed too costly, and the project was scrapped. In 1993, Dean Prochnow, the dean of CAFES at the time, revived the idea as a tribute to the newly retired Professor Swensen, according to the UWRF history of the sundial. John Shepherd, a professor who retired from the physics department since 2000, proposed a new design, and Elk River, Minn., artist Gene Olsen was commissioned to build it. The sundial, which was completed on May 14, 1995, was dedicated on Oct. 7, 1995, as the Richard D. Swensen sundial.

“It is the world’s largest and most accurate sundial,” Dick said. “It is accurate to within one minute.”

The Swensens also give two annual scholarships, one in chemistry and the other in forensics.

In 2000, the Swensens were honored with the State Department’s International Volunteer Award at the Millennium Celebration. They were two out of 32 people nationwide selected for the award.

“It was one of the most special times in our lives,” Dick said.

The award came with $5,000, which the couple donated to the UWRF Foundation. But the Swensens have given more than money and programs to UWRF.

“The highest tribute we have paid to the University is having each of our [six] children attend and graduate from there as well,” Dick said. “We are very proud of each of them, and are so very pleased that each of our children can compete not only on a regional level, but a national and international level, as a result of their River Falls education.”

The Swensens’ oldest, David, graduated in 1975 with a degree in economics. He completed his doctorate at Yale, and went on to work on Wall Street, where he created a swaps market for countries to exchange indebtedness. David eventually left his firm to become the director of the Yale Endowment, where he, over the course of 20 years, increased the endowment from $1 billion to $23 billion.

“We’re so impressed that Dave’s Bachelors and Masters Degrees from UWRF gave him such a solid background that he was able to compete at places like Yale and Wall Street,” Dick said. “But Dave’s intent in life is not to make money for himself but to help others. That is why he took such a drastic pay cut to work on the Yale Endowment.”

David wrote a successful book, “Pioneering Portfolio Management,” which outlines his Yale Model for investors wishing to adopt his practices. David has taught his model to people who have gone onto run endowments for Harvard, Princeton and Carnegie, to name a few.

In 1996, David received the Distinguished Alumni Award.

According to McGinty, it is the highest honor that can be bestowed upon a UWRF alumnus.

Former Chancellor Gary A. Thibodeau said in his presentation speech, “David is an example of a River Falls graduate who has gone into an extremely competitive career area in finance, with a rise in managing huge portfolios that is amazing for a person his age.”

David’s work with the Yale Endowment also landed him an honorary doctorate in humane letters from UWRF in April of 2008.

The Swensens’ next, Stephen, graduated in 1976 with a pre-med degree. He went on to get his medical degree at UW-Madison. He achieved his post-degree at Carnegie-Melon. Stephen then took a job at the Mayo Clinic, where he worked in radiology, eventually assuming the role as the head of radiology until he stepped down in 2007 due to Clinic’s bylaws that say no one may occupy any administrative seat for more than eight years.

Currently, Stephen heads up a board to evaluate the quality and safety of all the Mayo Clinic locations.

Stephen also headed up three National Institute of Health grants, worth more than $10 million, that have led to advancements in the early detection, understanding and treatment of cancers and lung disease, according to his distinguished alumni bio found through University Advancement. Stephen also wrote a book, “Radiology of Thoracic Diseases,” on uninvasive practices.

“Dave loves to kid Stephen by saying ‘your book is mostly pictures,’” Dick said with a laugh.

Stephen was honored with the Distinguished Alumni Award in 2005.

Next is Linda, who graduated in 1979 as a music major. She went on to receive a Masters in Pastoral Counseling from Luther Seminary. Linda spent many years raising her family but has recently gotten back into teaching, currently a TA in the St. Paul School District.

Then comes Jane, the fourth Swensen child and a theater and communication arts major. After graduating in 1980, Jane spent a year traveling, including working with Mother Theresa in India. Jane now works in Washington D.C., where she was the administrative head of the Millennium Program. After that, she moved to the Endowment for the Arts, and then onto the Commerce Committee on Capitol Hill.

Daniel graduated with a Masters in science education from UWRF in 1984. He went on to begin teaching in the St. Paul School District and in White Bear Lake. Being very interested in math, Dan became involved in the International Baccalaureate Program-a three-part program aimed at “students aged 3 to 19 help develop the intellectual, personal, emotional and social skills to live, learn and work in a rapidly globalizing world. There are more than 665,000 IB students at 2,425 schools in 131 countries,” according to the program’s Web site.

Dan is currently teaching at Bethel University, preparing other teachers to teach in the IB program. He is raising three kids with his wife in the house across the street from Dick and Grace.

The youngest, Carolyn, graduated in 1988 with a degree in business and marketing. She moved to Syracuse, NY, with her husband, who is also a UWRF alumnus. She is currently raising three children and working as a volunteer.

To round out the Swensen family of UWRF alumni, Grace’s brother, Glen Hartman, also graduated from the University. He went on to get his M.D. from UW-Madison. Glen preceded Stephen as the head of radiology at the Mayo Clinic.

“My brother was an exceptional individual and a fantastic leader,” Grace said. “He was an influence on all our children.”

“Each of our children are instilled with a great sense of loyalty and pride to their communities and to what they do, in part because of him,” Dick added.

Nine family members; nine diplomas from UWRF. 

“It amazes me so much that they valued a River Falls education enough to send all six of their kids through our program,” McGinty said.

Dick and Grace Swensen spend their days now as proud ticket holders to the Minnesota Orchestra. The couple was involved in bringing the Minnesota Orchestra to UWRF for company’s first two visits.

The couple is also deeply involved with the St. Croix Valley Summer Theater.

Dick and Grace meet monthly with other retired UWRF faculty members on the third Tuesday of every month at the West Wind restaurant.

Grace still attends the same book club she has for the past 40 years.

The couple stays as active with River Falls as they can, attending at least three to four University functions per year.

“We are very proud of the University faculty and students,” Grace said. “They are among the best in the world.”

The Swensens have been an embodiment of school spirit, being an active part of this institution since the 1953.

“River Falls is a great part of the world,” Dick said “and has provided a great setting for our lives.”