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Robert "Bob" Swenson

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Robert "Bob" Swenson Obituary
Robert "Bob" Swenson, 81 years old, passed away at home on Dec. 26 in the loving arms of Janet, his wife of 57 years, and his three children, Johanna, Kari and Paul.

Bob was born in Butte, Montana, March 3, 1934, to Theressa and Oscar Swenson. They moved to Bozeman in Bob's seventh year. While achieving exceptional grades in high school, he also played on the varsity basketball and football teams. During summers between grades Bob worked on the family farm in Hitterdal, Minnesota, as well as in the Pea Cannery in Bozeman. Bob graduated from Bozeman High in 1952 and attended Montana State College (now MSU), receiving a B.S. in Engineering Physics in 1956. During his summers in college he worked in Yellowstone Park at the Post Office in Mammoth. Fishing, hiking, dancing, and dating Janet Milek took up his spare time.

Bob was accepted to graduate school at Lehigh University where he received his Masters in Physics in 1958 and Ph.D in 1961. Bob's work accomplishments are discussed later in this obituary.

Bob and Janet were married Dec. 28, 1958. Johanna and Kari were born while Bob was completing his Ph.D. Post-doc work took the family to Brussels, Belgium, where Paul was born. When Bob was not busy with his academic work, the family camped throughout Europe in a VW bus.

The Swenson family lived in Colorado and Pennsylvania and ultimately returned to Bob's beloved Bozeman in 1970. They bought a cabin in the Gallatin Canyon where summers were spent in the mountains and on the rivers. He and Janet taught their children the love of fishing and hiking. Nights were spent reading books and instilling the love of good literature. Bob encouraged and gave the gift of opportunity to each of his children. They took up instruments and were encouraged to explore all types of music. He drove all over the western U.S. taking Johanna to tennis tournaments. With Kari and Paul he supported their passion for cross country skiing and biathlon, driving them to regional events, flying to international events, and always being their number one supporter. He served on the U.S. Biathlon Board in the 1980s.

Bob loved cycling and running, and playing handball on his lunch hours at the university. He and two friends created the Langlauf Cross Country Ski Series for families/citizens - the Hyalite Loop Lope, Brackett Creek Bash and Mystic Marathon. One year he had the Physics department challenge all other departments on campus to a running race down Bridger Canyon. Being ever so competitive, the Physics department won.

Throughout the years, Bob and Janet traveled to Scotland, China, New Zealand, Canada and Alaska. In Scotland Bob loved golfing the courses that looked like cow pastures, getting out of the "blasted" sand traps and retrieving balls from the prickly gorse.

After retiring, Bob and Janet spent their winters in Tucson, Arizona, golfing and enjoying the warm weather. Bob met with friends for a weekly game of liar's poker. His friends thought it unfair that he could read their body language so well. These same friends played golf together and always had a competition of some sort. Hunting golf balls while on his daily walk has provided family and friends with an eclectic, lifetime supply of balls.

In his workshop, Bob created beautiful, unique gifts for his children and grandchildren. Most memorable will be the Eduwagon enjoyed by his grandkids.

Bob's philosophy was to be the best ancestor possible. We usually think of ancestors as being the trunk on the family tree, which is true, but for Bob, there were many trees in his forest. He had numerous families in his life; the immediate family, spouses and grandchildren, his family of friends, and his professional family. He rarely talked about work at home, so when the family learned of all his accomplishments, and the people he affected in his professional life, they realized he was a great "ancestor" to this work family.

For his immediate family Bob gave of himself endlessly. If any of the family were in a bind, he would work with them to find a solution, which would then be celebrated as they came back to the top. He would never say "told you so" but was supportive, positive, and logical. He enjoyed his childrens' successes, whether academic, personal, or sports related. He was not a braggart, but did like mentioning their accomplishments, in a subtle way, to those around him.

Janet and the family will remember Bob for his devotion to them, his humor, integrity, unpretentiousness, and the gentle wit and wisdom of a sweet husband, father and grandfather.

Bob's academic achievements and honors are many. He was a Fellow of the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He received the Governor's Award for Outstanding Service on the Science and Technology Council, the Montana State University (MSU) Alumni Excellence Award in 1986 and 1990, and National Science Foundation's (NSF) Award for Outstanding Contribution to the "Experimental Program to Simulate Competitive Research" (EPSCoR). He served on the Board of Directors of the National EPSCoR Coalition, the Montana Biotechnology Center of Excellence, and the Association of Retirement Organizations in Higher Education. He served on the Board of Trustees of the EPSCoR Foundation, and the Associated Western Universities.

Throughout his career, Bob focused on creating a vital role for a research land-grant university in a rural state, particularly with regard to the impact of research on the education of undergraduates and on technology transfer to the micro-businesses in the state.

Bob received a B.S. from Montana State in Engineering Physics in 1956 and a Ph.D. in Physics from Lehigh University in 1961. After a postdoctoral fellowship at Lehigh, he received offers of fellowships from NATO, NSF, and National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to study in Europe. Bob chose the NAS Fellowship and spent two years at the University of Brussels working with Nobel Laureate Ilya Prigogine.

Following his work with Prigogine, he took a joint appointment between the Physics Department and the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics at the University of Colorado. But within a year, he received an offer from Temple University in Philadelphia that he could not refuse. During five years at Temple, Bob built up one of the strongest groups in Statistical Physics in the country. In his third year, he was elected Chair of the Physics Department.

But Bob always wanted to return to the Rockies. Beginning in 1968, with support from NSF, Bob started organizing theoretical physics workshops at Montana State University each summer. Then on July 1, 1970, Bob returned to Montana full-time as head of the MSU Department of Physics. He held that position from 1970 to 1990. He became Vice President for Research and Development in the summer of 1990, serving until 1998.

Bob was an important leader in stimulating research in rural states that typically only received a small portion of federal research funding. Through Bob's involvement in EPSCoR, he had a major impact on the ability of Montana's universities to conduct research, bringing more than $200 million into the state of Montana. Bob served as chairman of the Coalition of EPSCoR States and served so ably – and with such a deep commitment to improving the nation's science and technology enterprise -- that the coalition created a scholarship in his honor, the "Dr. Robert Swenson Scholarship," at MSU. The honor was presented to Bob in Washington, D.C. on March 24, 1998.

From 1993 to 1995, Bob's tenure as Vice President for Research saw the creation of the forerunner of MSU's current Technology Transfer Office, where Montana State's discoveries are made available through licensing for commercialization. He also helped establish MSU's TechLink, which transfers discoveries made in federal labs to the commercial sector.

In 1998, Bob retired and assumed the title of Emeritus Professor of Physics and Special Assistant to the Provost at Montana State University. He created a research and education field station, located in Big Sky, focused on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

After leaving active employment at MSU he observed that the transition into retirement was unduly traumatic and disappointing for many MSU faculty members. Ever the scientist, he did his research, gathered data, sought opinions, and identified a remedy. In 2004, he convened a group of colleagues to found the MSU Association of Retired Faculty (ARF). Bob explained in the Montana Professor magazine that the purpose of ARF is "to foster the benefit, interests and well being of retired and retiring faculty members through social, educational and promotional activities, as well as to encourage continuing retiree contact and involvement with the University." Statewide, ARF is the only point of contact between the Montana University System and its retired faculty. Last year, ARF celebrated its 10th anniversary of service. Until his recent illness, Bob was an active member of the ARF Steering Committee, continuing a commitment to MSU that began for him 63 years ago.

In 2014 Bob was made an Honorary Member of the National Academy of Inventors in 2014 for all his contributions to Montana State University during his tenure.

Bob's career is best summarized by a quote from him in a 100-year history of MSU publication: "A university's distinguishing characteristic – the creation of knowledge – bears with it a public trust to transmit that knowledge." Bob took the transmission of knowledge very seriously and believed that a research physics department was not complete until it had Ph.D. physicists whose primary focus was physics education. While at Temple University he conceptualized the position of a "teaching physicist" and later brought that feature to the MSU physics department by establishing a teaching group as a legitimate component of a first-rate research physics department.

Bob is survived by his wife Janet and children Johanna, Kari, and Paul (Lori) and grandchildren Solae, Skye and Soren.

A scholarship fund has been set up at Montana State University for Undergraduate Physics Students. Contributions may be made to MSU Foundation for the Robert J. Swenson Memorial Scholarship.

A Celebration of Bob's Life will be held Saturday, May 21 at 1:30 p.m. at the Swenson residence in Bozeman, Montana.
Published in Bozeman Daily Chronicle on Jan. 31, 2016
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