John F. Kennedy was living in the White House when a youthful Evan Swanson taught his first history and biology classes at Maplewood Academy (MWA), a Seventh-day Adventist school in Hutchinson, Minnesota, United States, in 1963.
The Berlin Wall had been erected just two years earlier, the moon landing still loomed in the future, and few Americans could conceive of a world without the Soviet Union. During that first year at Maplewood Academy, Swanson — soon nicknamed Swanee — served alongside faculty members old enough to remember World War I and the 1918 Flu Pandemic. His first students copied their class notes from a dusty chalkboard and learned the details of current events belatedly from printed newspapers or in class from Swanee himself.
Today, almost six decades have come and gone, along with the Soviet Union and most of the British Empire, 11 U.S. presidents, nine Minnesota Vikings (America football) coaches, and three generations of Maplewood students who counted Swanee as a lifelong friend and mentor. This year, at age 80, he finally retired his dry-erase markers. His 57 years of service on one campus must surely set a record for Adventist academy teachers in North America.
Swanee’s most recent students were born well after 9/11 and have never lived without digital devices. In 2021, everyone carries unlimited news and facts in their pockets, yet more than ever, wise teachers are needed to help sort through the noise. In a world of harsh rhetoric and black-and-white reasoning, Swanee taught students to sift information, consider the source, and appreciate nuance. With an amused chuckle and that quizzical eyebrow, he questioned teenage assumptions until students learned to do their own thinking.
He not only taught history but lived it beside his students, talking them through the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam, the end of the Cold War, and the beginning of the new millennium. He connected ancient quarrels to current world conflicts and set it all in the context of eternity.
Still, Swanee’s most enduring legacy extends far beyond the classroom. He and his wife, Evie (Johnson) Swanson, made the campus a home, whether it was for farm kids from northern Minnesota or international students from Ethiopia or Mexico. People who attended MWA can easily think of their favorite memories — if an MWA alumnus is under the age of 75, it is very likely the Swansons were a significant part of their experience.
How many miles did they put on that station wagon taking students to K-Mart for supplies? How many class officer meetings did Swanee coach through, and how many times did he help decorate the same cafeteria for banquets? How many homes across Minnesota did he visit while recruiting students because he believed in this school and its mission? And how many hours did he pace the campus perimeter while “on duty” (indeed, his least favorite task, but one he carried out with faithfulness and grace because families counted on him to help keep the students safe and well-behaved)?
Swanee also planted a good number of trees himself on campus and nurtured them into maturity, just as he sowed seeds of curiosity and critical thinking in several thousand youthful minds through the decades. Whether growing trees or strong Christians, Swanee always fixed his eye on the long view.
His former students are fiercely loyal and still seek him out when they visit campus for Alumni Weekend or camp meeting. Typically, they find him in a lawn chair in his driveway on the north side of campus, always with a matter-of-fact smile, as if he expected the unannounced company. Notably, some of Swanee’s most devoted fans are former students who confess to having been “troublemakers” or “lazy students.” Evie Swanson explains, “He treated every student with respect. He believed in second chances.” He also believed that a little teasing was good for the character, and few students escaped his gentle mockery.
Unlike some teachers who consider summer vacation the best part of teaching, Swanee loved a busy campus. Evie says, “For him, the highlight of the year was when students returned to campus every fall. It wasn’t the same without the kids. He really gets energized by teenagers and gets such a kick out of their fun ways.”
Evie Swanson also taught classes (family and consumer science) after their children were grown and marvels at how God led them to serve a lifetime at the same school where she was once a student. She says, “Truly, being on this campus, working with the wonderful staff families over the years — it’s such a family feeling. The blessing has been ours.”
Swanee has always said, “If you love your job, you never work a day in your life.” He certainly did love his job, along with his students and the unique calling of Adventist education. He admits to shedding some tears over the decision to finally retire. The Swansons say, “As far as we’re concerned, Christian education is about the best investment we know of. It pays dividends for eternity.”