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Dick Swantz, who spent much of his life serving children and families in La Crosse, first as superintendent of schools and more recently as president of the common council, died Tuesday at age 84.

The line items on Swantz’s resume — 21 years as superintendent, eight years with the common council, thousands of lives touched and improved — make him one of the most influential figures in the city’s recent history.

But those who knew Swantz describe him as a man whose professional accomplishments were eclipsed by the way he treated people, a man who held kindness and compassion above everything else.

Dick Swantz

Swantz

Mayor Tim Kabat

Kabat

“Dick always believed that having arguments about an issue or policy is one thing, but doing that in a respectful and compassionate way is just as important,” Mayor Tim Kabat said. “The way he went about his business, he made people around him better at what they did. He made me a better mayor. He made me a better person.”

Swantz was a late bloomer in local politics but a lifelong advocate for children and education.

A native of Fond du Lac, he got his start at a school district in McHenry, Ill., where he worked as a history teacher, an elementary school principal, a high school principal and, finally, superintendent.

Swantz came to La Crosse in 1977 and immediately left his mark on the district.

At the time, there was a prevailing notion of two La Crosses — the poor north side and the rich south side. This was reflected in the two high schools. Logan offered a vocational curriculum while Central offered a college preparatory curriculum.

But Swantz helped establish equality between the schools, overseeing the construction of the new Logan building in 1979 and redrawing school attendance boundaries in the same year.

The change forced some wealthy south-siders to send their children to Logan. Others moved to keep their children at Central. Many called for Swantz to resign.

“This is a man who had tremendous courage and always did what was best for children and for the community, whether or not it was popular,” said Jerry Kember, who served as superintendent shortly after Swantz retired. “He wanted to make sure all students had equal privilege to a quality education. He understood the challenges families in our community were facing, and he took on a lot of difficulty and challenges himself to make that happen.”

Fred Kusch, who was a student in one of Swantz’s history classes and later worked with him in La Crosse, said the redrawing of attendance boundaries changed the culture of not just the schools, but of the city as well.

Swantz knew he was shaking a hornet’s nest, Kusch said, but he did it anyway.

“Dick lived out in the country, and there were bullet holes in his barn. It was like the Wild West out there,” Kusch said. “I don’t think anybody was going to kill anybody, but there was a lot of emotion and a lot of irrational behavior on the part of many, many people. But he dealt with it all with a cool, calm, respectful demeanor. He made sure everyone was heard, and then he said, ‘OK, it’s time to move forward.’”

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Friends and colleagues say Swantz managed to strike a healthy work-life balance.

He owned a dalmatian, rooted for the Green Bay Packers and had a mischievous streak. He and his wife, Judy, raised three sons, who gave them grandchildren.

But education was never far from his mind.

Whenever Swantz talked about children, said former school board member Tom Thompson, a big smile would crease his face.

“He was so passionate in whatever he did, but education was always the thing he seemed to care about most,” Thompson said. “You could tell with that smile. It hit him right in his heart.”

Swantz left the school district in 1998 but remained active in the community.

He served as a liaison between UW-La Crosse and local school districts, working to strengthen the university’s teacher education program.

He volunteered with the Rotary Club of La Crosse, the La Crosse Community Foundation and a handful of other organizations.

And, in 2007, Swantz was elected to public office for the first time, earning a seat on La Crosse’s common council. He was named council president in 2013, and was a key figure in the revitalization of downtown La Crosse.

“All you have to do is look around the city, how vibrant it is,” Kusch said. “He was a leader in that. His fingerprints are everywhere.”

According to Kusch, the scale of Swantz’s impact is best measured not by the number of new restaurants or apartment buildings in town, nor by the demographics of local schools.

It’s best measured by the people, some who knew him and some who didn’t, whose lives are better because of him.

“The number of people that man touched in any kind of way is just amazing,” Kusch said. “Not many people have the epitaph: ‘You changed my life.’ But he does.”


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Kyle Farris can be reached at (608) 791-8234 or kfarris@lacrossetribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Kyle_A_Farris.

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(2) comments

GrandpaS

Oh, wait. That's right. Our current president doesn't read and even if others read something to him, he doesn't absorb it.

GrandpaS

We just lost two very strong leaders, Mr. Swantz and Elijah Cummings. They both remind me of when elected officials actually worked to accomplish things and worked together to do that. Somebody should write a book or even a dissertation on the lifestyles, work habits, sense of cooperation and accomplishments of these two gentlemen, and then send it to Congress and our current presidential administration as mandatory reading. I wonder if this kind of elected servants and leaders will ever come back? Bob Doyle is one for the state of Wisconsin, but right now, I can't think of any others. Any others?

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