By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
Roger Swardson was the oldest man ever to write for City Pages. Wearing a slept-in-looking trenchcoat, he used to show up at the officewith a yarn he was burning to tell. Underdog stories were his specialty. In a stop-and-start gravelly voice, he'd go on about a woman trying to organize a garment shop or a guy who sold worms he collected down by the river. That was the thing about Roger: He was keenly interested in the way people lived. He'd stand at your desk unraveling the particulars until an hour had gone by and you were still sitting there with your fingers poised over the keyboard.
On Thanksgiving morning, Swardson died due to complications resulting from a stroke, his fourth in as many years. It was a tough last stretch for him, though he handled it with his own immutable style. Not so many months ago, after his third stroke, he was walking down the sidewalk with his daughter Rachel when his pants fell down. He simply adjusted his gait and kept trudging. When she asked whether he realized that his pants were bunched around his ankles, he answered, "Yeah, well, that happens."
A lot happened to Swardson during his 69 years. He wrote some of the best pieces in the nation about workaday people, describing the undignified mill of day labor, the union-busting strategies undertaken in countless workplaces, the fierce incursion of Whole Foods (which he suggested was the result of "New Agers stamping their Birkenstocks and demanding organic foods, potions, and eyeliner"), the benign degradation of working at the post office, and even the innards of a job that included changing the expiration dates on female condoms. He wrote genuinely about people barely getting by because he was barely getting by himself. Says Monika Bauerlein, who edited him in the late 1990s, "He wasn't writing about the working poor with that here I am, slumming among the proletariat attitude. He once told me that the big problem with a lot of stories where a writer goes undercover in a sweatshop or something is that they end up being about the writer and not about the other people there. Because you really don't get to know the other people if you're just visiting."
Swardson possessed an oral historian's ear for the rhythms of speech and the details of lives. If he passed a homeless man talking to himself on a street corner, Roger was the guy who walked up and asked, "Hey, what's that you're saying?" One of the most poignant pieces he wrote for City Pages--it especially seems so now--was about the elderly woman who ran the St. Paul rooming house where he lived. He'd just attended her funeral. "She was 82 and missed patches of conversation now and then," he wrote. "But if she thought she'd missed a question, she'd give you the answer anyway. It would be to the question you should have asked."
To us at the paper, it seemed almost natural that Swardson lived in a boarding house in St. Paul, that he was a single guy who cooked food on a hot plate and liked to poke around the city's dark corners. He was a bona fide character. But, in fact, he'd been a powerhouse before coming to us, a real mover in St. Paul's better circles. You could say that Roger was facing the downward arc of his life at the point we knew him, but he would have disagreed. On certain days, he would have added that you were an asshole, too.
Roger Eric Swardson was born in 1934 in Cincinnati, the youngest child of a traveling salesman and an opera singer. His mother, who still lives in Arkansas, claims that she knew Roger would be special even before he was conceived. While he was a child, the family moved around a lot, which may have had something to do not only with his easy gregariousness but his fascination with new places and people and situations. Eventually, Swardson attended Ohio University, where he charmed his way to a position as head of a very tony fraternity. Only two years into his education, however, he was expelled because of low grades. Roger's daughter Rachel supposes that his academic underachievement was due in part to his "love of fancy cars and nice ladies."
He was drafted into the Army in 1954, just after the Korean War ended, during which time he served in Germany as a radioman. He proceeded to spend most of his hitch swinging a racket on the Army tennis team. He also managed (through what his brother, Roland Swardson, calls his "omni-directional friend-making ability") an invitation to join an exclusive German tennis club. "He traveled with them to matches and watched them fall into nostalgia as they got drunk afterward," Roland recalls. "In one letter, he gave us a last unforgettable picture: officers of the Reich, arms linked around the table, singing the Horst Wessel song."
Out of the Army, Roger finished college and went to work as a police reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer. He strayed wildly from his beat, preferring instead to write stories about the various outsiders he encountered, including a group of men living along the banks of the Ohio River. He finally found his way to Minnesota, and St. Paul in particular--a city he immediately fell in love with for its quiet history and lack of flashy chain malls--in the 1960s, when he was hired as a PR flack for Pillsbury. By mid-decade he was the editor of the Twin Citian, a more literary and political precursor to today's city magazines. Along the way he also worked for a time as director of information at Macalester College.