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Rotarian Walter Swann discusses life, community outreach

DOWAGIAC — It is not uncommon to see Walter Swann attend Dowagiac Rotary Club meetings every Thursday.

He has been a member of the Rotary Club for three years, after all.

What was unique about Thursday’s meeting at Front Street Crossing was that Swann himself was the club’s guest speaker. Swann, 79, presented his storied past to club members in attendance.

Born just outside of Salisbury, North Carolina in 1941, Swann was the youngest of 10 children. His mother was a substitute teacher, and his father worked in a rock quarry. Swann and his siblings helped their parents raise ten acres of cotton on their property.

“We all learned how to work on the farm,” Swann said. “To this day, I enjoy working with people on a farm. I have a group of kids that I work with in the city and sometimes I’ll pick them up, and we’ll go out to work for people on the farm.”

Swann graduated from high school before joining the Navy in 1962. According to Swann, a man by the name of Willie Clemens encouraged Swann to stay focused and to graduate high school.

“If you didn’t finish school, they would keep you in that grade until you finished,” he said. “You had to finish that grade otherwise you got held back. I was held back a few times through my school years. I was working for [Clemens], who owned the first Amoco gas station in town. He told me that if I didn’t go back to school, I couldn’t work for him anymore. He got me back in school, and I’d like to thank him someday.”

Swann left the Navy in 1966. After his military service, Swann moved to Long Beach, California, where he went to work at the naval shipyard there. That’s where he met his wife Alice, who worked there as a postal worker after transferring from her hometown of Dowagiac. It was a meeting he remembers vividly to this day.

“We met on the bus going to work,” he said. “You know I was looking. I don’t know if she was looking, but I was looking.”

In 1996, Swann retired from the shipyard and moved to Dowagiac with Alice, in order to help take care of her mother. A former professional boxer, Swann has given boxing lessons at Southwestern Michigan College, the Cass County Council on Aging Front Street Crossing facility and the Fit Stop 24 location in downtown Dowagiac.

“I’ve really come to enjoy Dowagiac,” Swann said. “I’ve enjoyed meeting all the people I’ve met over the years and the things I’ve done and been involved with.”

While Swann has been retired for 25 years, he still enjoys working on projects and engaging the area youth. It is what keeps him going.

“I enjoy myself here and I don’t have any thoughts of stopping,” he said. “I’m trying to build more things and I want to help as many young people as I can. I want to make this place even bigger and better than it already is, because this is a beautiful place to be.”

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