At 95, Humphrey School Benefactor Tom Swain Still Inspires
September 26, 2016—It’s become an annual tradition at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs—a dozen or so current and former students sitting down for lunch, catching up on each other’s lives. But the man who brings them together for this occasion is pretty special. He’s Tom Swain, and they are recipients of the Thomas H. Swain Fellowship in Public Leadership, which assists students pursuing a Master of Public Affairs degree.
“Tom is a delight,” said Swain Fellowship recipient Tracy Nordstrom (MPA ’15). “He’s a man who approaches each new opportunity with glee and gusto, and who reflects on experiences, good or bad, as powerful influences on who he is.”
By just about any measure, 95-year-old Tom Swain has had a remarkable career of public service. He has worked in higher education, politics, corporate affairs, and health care. He has volunteered a great deal of his time as a member and chair of numerous nonprofit and civic boards. And he successfully ran for public office to become the mayor of the St. Paul suburb of Lilydale at the young age of 85.
Swain noted that over the course of his 60-plus year career, he’s had 16 different jobs. Half of them were in the private sector and half in the public sector.
“We need good folks in the public sector,” Swain said by way of explaining his ongoing support for the Humphrey School, and in particular for MPA students, who are mid-career professionals.
“The MPA program allows people to remake themselves,” said Humphrey School Dean Eric Schwartz. “Who better to support them than a 95-year-old benefactor who has reinvented himself several times?”
Schwartz added that Swain has lived by the simple principle of trying to make the world a better place.
A consensus builder
In his 2015 memoir, “Citizen Swain,” Tom Swain described himself as a “number-two person—a team player, facilitator, implementer, organizer, get-it-done guy” who focuses on gaining consensus.
“When one cares about a cause, one ought to work to build support for it,” he said. “That’s better done if others can trust you to be fair, to listen, to respect their views, and to be willing to compromise.”
Swain’s admirers describe him as more than just a “number-two guy.” They call him a model of ethical and moral leadership, an inspiration, and a source of incredible wisdom.
“He has an ability to ask really wise and probing questions that call us to think more strategically and thoughtfully,” said Humphrey School Associate Dean Laura Bloomberg. “He’s a great Minnesotan, and a leader who is also doing the work, not being a ‘parlor general.’”
Over the course of his extraordinary life of public service, Swain has chosen to support the Humphrey School in its mission to prepare leaders to work for the common good. In addition to his support of the Swain Fellowship, he serves on the Humphrey School’s Advisory Council, and is involved in many other school activities each year.
Swain’s goal is to keep in contact with as many fellows as he can, so he brings them all together once a year for a reunion luncheon of sorts, to hear about their latest ventures and discuss with them what’s happening in the world of politics and policy.
About a dozen Swain Fellows joined him for this year’s luncheon in July, and also helped him celebrate his 95th birthday.
The Swain Fellowship was established in 2002, and 42 have been awarded to date.
The first fellowship recipient was Elizabeth Glidden (MPA ’04), who is a member of the Minneapolis City Council. Tom Swain was the one who urged Glidden to run for office 2005, telling her she’d regret it if she didn’t.
Many recipients say the fellowship was a turning point for them, including Barrett Chrissis (MPA ’17), a 29-year veteran of the Buffalo, Minnesota, Police Department, who described it as “monumentally impactful” for him.
“It was a validation of the personal sacrifices involved in my career as a public servant in law enforcement, and also as a two-time candidate for the Minnesota Legislature,” said Chrissis. “It was also a tremendous boost of confidence for me, for I feared I didn’t belong in this academically prestigious school.”
As for Tom Swain, he has no intention of slowing down. Every day he lives out his motto, “It’s better to wear out than to rust out.” Even that is a lesson he is passing along to the Swain Fellows.
"I take that to mean if you have breath in your body, experience you can pass on, or relationships you can form or influence, you're obligated to do so,” said Matthew Johnson, (MPA ’13), who is academic dean at Hopkins West Junior High School. “What I learned from Tom is there is no such thing as retirement. If you have the ability, you can do something.”
Swain was recognized at the John Brandl Lecture Monday evening, for his ongoing contributions to public service in Minnesota. Nearly 100 people, including friends, colleagues, and Swain Fellows, came to hear Swain discuss current public policy challenges with a panel of experts from the fields of education, business, law, and government. His main message to those in the audience was to live their lives to the fullest, to find ways to serve others, and to remember that no matter your age, "you're never too old to take risks."