The life and legacy of Jim Swenson lives on
Jim Swenson, the namesake of the Swenson College of Science and Engineering [SCSE], died of pancreatic cancer on Oct. 5, 2018, at the age of 81 in Dana Point, California.
Swenson was both a philanthropist and an entrepreneur, having accomplished many things in his life.
According to a Duluth News Tribune article, Swenson “was born in Superior in 1937. He was the oldest of five boys and lost his mother to cancer when he was in 12th grade. He went to work for his dad at Eddie's Bakery and cleaned carpets for his future father-in-law.”
Swenson graduated from Central High School in Superior, Wisconsin. He then attended the University of Wisconsin, Superior, and graduated with a degree in chemistry from UMD in 1959. He also served in the National Guard.
“Swenson began at UWS before transferring to UMD,” the Duluth News Tribune article said. “However, he didn't have the money to pay for his senior year.”
Dr. Steve Berry, department head and associate professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry in SCSE, said he knew Swenson well.
Berry said that Swenson, who had a lack of money at UMD, met his friend Bob Banks who funded his schooling and insisted that Swenson pay it forward instead of paying it back.
“SCSE students can honor Jim and Sue by earning money and paying tuition at college,” Berry said. “This goes for the same example for students and faculty outside of SCSE.”
The Swenson Civil Engineering and Swenson Science buildings at UMD are not the only buildings under the Swenson name. He also helped fund the construction of Swenson Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, the Swenson Center for Social and Behavior Sciences and the Swenson Science Center at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, California.
According to The Duluth News Tribune, “Swenson married his high school sweetheart Susan [in 1959] and took a job at Honeywell in the Twin Cities.”
In his lifetime, Swenson held roles at Honeywell Research Center, Univac, General Motors AC Electronics, Lockheed Electronics, Rockwell International and Century Data.
“Swenson was very passionate about helping people,” Berry said. “He had a large company at Details, Inc., and knew employees by name that drove him to be a good boss and a leader as a result of working hard.”
According to the SCSE website, “Jim and Sue Swenson, through the Swenson Family Foundation, have demonstrated in countless ways the impact of private philanthropy on students at UMD and in the Swenson College of Science and Engineering.”
The Swenson’s have been helping UMD students since 1994.
“There have been 395 students who supported the programs through the new buildings and also scholarships,” Berry said. “The scholarships consist of 26 students per year during a supported full-tuition scholarship.”
These scholarships are comprised from 270 different Summer Undergraduate Research (SURP) awards, and 185 different Scholarship students, totaling up to 455 awards among 395 recipients.
“Jim and Sue have supported students over a 10-week summer research position with faculty and staff,” Berry said. “They have recently not just supported students in chemistry and biochemistry, but also biology.”
Berry said that Swenson did not just give money, but also was active on the UMD campus.
“Swenson welcomed freshmen every fall,” Berry said. “He also participated in student graduation events and was a good friend of leaders at UMD.”
UWS Chancellor Renee Wachter stated in an Oct. 11, 2018, letter that “Swenson Hall was named for Jim and Sue Swenson and the 16 other members of the family who attended the university over the years. Jim’s mother was one of the first and graduated from UW-Superior (then Superior Normal School) in 1932.”
“Jim had such a big heart; he believed that students could achieve anything if they set their mind to it and he wanted to be able to help make that happen during his lifetime,” Wachter said in the letter. “He wanted to repay the gift that he received when he was a student and needed a financial boost to help attend.”
According to Swenson’s obituary published in The Duluth News Tribune, Swenson became a pioneer in creating ‘inner-layer details’ for printed circuit boards.
“His goal was to bring hi-tech printed circuit boards out of research and into the marketplace,” the Duluth News Tribune obituary said. “Starting with four employees and a $15,000 second mortgage on the family's house, his company Details Inc. became the fastest quick-turn-around engineering prototype circuit board shop in the United States, with a company of 500 employees and a client list that included Apple, IBM, Motorola and Compaq.”
Not only will Jim Swenson’s life and legacy live on forever, his buildings will do the same as students and staff will continue their studies at both UMD and UWS for many years to come.