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Robert Swenson

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Robert Swenson of Santa Cruz died peacefully surrounded by his wife and family at Dominican Hospital on the last day of 2007. He was two months short of his ninetieth birthday.

Bob was born and grew up in Ottumwa, Iowa, to a family of modest means. Due to his mother Naomi's and his own determination, Bob was able to graduate from Cornell College where he met his future wife and life-partner, Frances Porter Swenson. Bob early on chose education as his life's work. In between stints teaching, he attended Columbia University for his Master's degree, and then during World War II served as an officer in the US Navy. After the war, he was able to obtain his doctorate in education at Stanford through the GI Bill. From his dissertation work, he developed a special focus on the community college. The purposes community colleges serve reflect his passionate belief that access to education results in equality of opportunity regardless of one's background. Bob wanted others to have the opportunity to realize their vocational goals just as he had done through the help of others who believed in him.

Bob rose quickly in the ranks of community college administrators, first at Fullerton and then at Long Beach, California. In 1959, a newly established board tapped Bob to become the founding president of a community college in Santa Cruz County. Bob and his family were attracted by the natural beauty of the area in addition to the draw of an educational leader's dream job. The founding and growth of Cabrillo College became the legacy of his work for the next 18 years. Started in temporary facilities at Watsonville High School with a student body of 400, Bob worked with the community to establish its permanent mid-county campus now serving 14,000 students. He stepped down from the college post in 1977 and went on to serve as Executive Director of the Western Association of Colleges and Schools, an accrediting body for community colleges.

In his retirement Bob remained active in fundraising for the Cabrillo Foundation. He was a strong believer in community and served in a number of other community leadership roles including as Chair and long-time board member of Dominican Hospital and as a founding board member of the Community Foundation of Santa Cruz County.

When he came to Cabrillo, Bob and Fran brought their six children to Santa Cruz County. Marriage and family life were at his center, and included backpacking with his sons; family camping trips; and for many years an annual family sojourn to Pinecrest Lake in the Sierra complete with his campfire antics and pancake flipping in the morning. Bob loved the great outdoors and strongly supported the national and state park systems. From childhood summers on the Iowa farm of his favorite uncle, he grew up learning to plant and nurture a garden, and for most of his adult life his yearly garden was a outlet that didn't talk back to him. His family, colleagues and friends, remember him as a person who could listen them to death" by asking thoughtful questions and engaging with the person as well as the topic. He was a constant reader, mostly of nonfiction; he and Fran were life-long Methodists, and loved their church family at the Aptos Community United Methodist Church.

Bob leaves his wife Fran; his six children and their spouses: Bruce and Barbara Swenson of Palo Alto, Mary Swenson and Hal Thurston of Bellingham, Washington, Carol and Dave Mann, Roger and Keri Swenson, Jean and Richard Manning, and Peggy and Ken Kaysen, all of Santa Cruz county; his sister Rosemary Whitney Williams of Santa Barbara; twelve grand children; and three great grandchildren. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests contributions to the Robert and Frances Swenson endowed Scholarship at the Cabrillo College Foundation or to the Aptos Community United Methodist Church. A Community Memorial Service will be held on Sunday, January 13 at 2 pm at the Cabrillo College Theatre.

Published in Santa Cruz Sentinel from Jan. 4 to Jan. 5, 2008
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