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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.
But the main thrust of Roger's efforts was to improve his adopted city of St. Paul, especially the Grand Avenue area. At the time, there were a lot of empty storefronts along the avenue and accompanying low rents--antique stores and other small boutiques were moving in. As he told the St. Paul neighborhood paper the Grand Gazette, which profiled him in August 2003, "This was the era of hanging plants and pottery shops." Concerned that the neighborhood was vulnerable to a dramatic change for the worse--say, the building of a strip mall or some other monstrosity--Swardson set out to revitalize Grand Avenue from within. In order to better market the area, he founded the Grand Gazette in 1973; it's still going under the recently changed name of Avenues. In his capacity as neighborhood booster, Swardson also instigated the first Grand Old Day celebration.
Eventually, the Gazette required a larger space--Roger bragged of four subscribers in Paris--so he rented a second-story office above a pharmacy. As he later told the Gazette, "I called a very, very old lady about renting space in the building. She said, 'Oh my, we haven't rented to anyone since 1944.'" Swardson, with three business partners, went on to purchase the building. They invited in stores and restaurants and Roger's wife at the time, Pam, came up with the name: Victoria Crossing.
Things were going exceedingly well for Roger. He and Pam had three children--John, Rachel, and Nick (he also had two kids, Gwyneth and Charlie, with a previous wife; they lived with him on and off). He thrived on being a dad. The family lived in a big house with a swimming pool. Roger drove a BMW. Rachel recalls that when he woke the kids in the morning, he would hide in their rooms with a squirt gun and try to pelt them in the ear. Or he would tickle their noses with feathers. "We would get mad," she says, "and he would stand there laughing." He made amends by driving them to school in the BMW with all the windows down and the sunroof open, blaring the theme from The Lone Ranger. Sometimes, for comic effect, he hung an American flag out the window.
Swardson's flamboyant, impetuous way of doing things came with a downside. In the 1980s, he became interested in St. Paul's Lowertown development--he found the farmers' market particularly appealing. And so, despite protests from his family that he was undermining their financial security, he sold his stake in Victoria Crossing and invested in Lowertown. He envisioned stores and loft apartments and restaurants--including Sawatdee, which he'd helped get off the ground. The project didn't take off the way Roger thought it would, in part because of a lagging economy. He lost big, monetarily and personally. He and Pam divorced in 1989 and Roger moved into an apartment on Grand and Dale.
That's when Swardson, heartbroken and just plain broke, started his life over again as an hourly wage grunt. Around the same time he also turned back to writing in an effort to keep the rent paid. In 1990, he phoned City Pages' editor Steve Perry, pitching a piece about baseball card collectors. But Steve had already assigned a similar story. Roger finally called back about a year after "that piece of shit" ran, pitching a different kind of story entirely: a first-person account of working a temp job that consisted of tearing apart 250 pounds of scrap metal an hour. It opened this way: "Just say 'poor.' It's a good word. It just hasn't been very popular for a while. The last president to use it comfortably was Lyndon Johnson, who also displayed his gall bladder scar and picked up his beagle by the ears. These days the White House eschews crassness, and plain speaking as well."
It was a watershed piece that set the tone for future stories he contributed to City Pages, several of which were subsequently republished in the Washington Post, winning him a book contract that he was unable to fulfill in the end.
In 1999, Swardson suffered his first stroke and was admitted to the VA hospital in St. Paul. Though his kids presented him with legal pads and felt tip pens, the implements he preferred, he never again put pen to paper. After he died, one of his sons found a pad on which he'd scribbled over and over, trying to write "Merry Christmas, Love Dad." The coordinated effort was exceptionally difficult. Because the stroke had damaged the left side of his brain, he'd had to relearn such basic functions as walking and buttoning a button. Then, six months later, the second stroke came. Doctors discovered that he suffered from a condition called cerebral amyloid angiopathy, which causes blood leakage in the brain. Increasingly, researchers are pinning it as the cause of many strokes in the elderly.
Unable to live on his own, Swardson was moved to an assisted living high-rise in St. Paul, and then to a nursing home. The home "was shitville," remembers Rachel. "There were people peeing in the hallways, people moaning and crying. Even through all that, my dad would say, you have to come and meet Margaret. You have to hear the voice on her." Rachel would get to his apartment and discover a blind woman sitting there screaming about a lost shoe. And he would say, "Isn't that just a beautiful voice?"
Finally, a couple of years ago, Swardson moved to Phoenix, to live near his son Charlie. That's where he died. Rachel arranged for her father's brain to be donated to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore as part of a research project into the causes and effects of amyloid angiopathy. He undoubtedly would have been both flattered and fascinated.
"The thing I'll always remember best about Roger," says Steve Perry, "is his absolutely indomitable spirit. You have to remember that he was thrown back into subsistence-level, hand-to-mouth living at a relatively advanced age, at a time when most people of his accomplishments are downshifting toward retirement and a life of leisure. He kept on going without missing a beat, and did some of the very best work of his life in the last 10 years of it.
"Where did he find that kind of strength? I think it came from his curiosity toward everything he approached. That's what kept him younger and more alive than most people half his age."
Roger Swardson's memorial service will be on Sunday, December 14 at 1:00 p.m. It will take place at St. Clement's Episcopal Church, 901 Portland Ave., St. Paul. A reception will follow at Summit Manor, 275 Summit Ave.