Generous donor was born. He lived. He gave.
Don Swanson keeps a small treasure in a box in his bedroom.
“I wouldn’t ever think of parting with it,” the 91-year-old says. He smiles.
It’s a piece of shrapnel.
Like many men from his great generation, Don rarely talked about World War II or what he saw in Eastern Europe. The Table Rock, Neb., native returned home, married his Mary Lee, and lived a great life as a statistician and accountant.
He and Mary Lee bought this stone-clad ranch home in east Lincoln in ’64. Don rose to corporate secretary-treasurer of the Lincoln Telephone & Telegraph Co. After Mary Lee died in 1990, he started giving much of their money away, mainly to scholarships for UNL students who want to be teachers.
Mary Lee was a teacher. So was his mother. Don says he learned so much from the teachers of his life. In college, he got a job tutoring students who were struggling in the bookkeeping course, and that experience taught him more than anything else in college – that each student is different, and that “you’ve got to get inside their heads and find out what it takes to get their attention and teach them.”
The teachers in his life, he says, taught him about integrity.
“If you don’t have that, what else can you have?”
And he learned, he says, from the greatest teacher of all. About giving back.
“I got to re-reading the Bible one time and I saw a short little sentence that said, ‘The more you sow, the more you reap.’ So I decided I’d try that. And it’s been true – the more I give away, the more I have to give away.”
Jezebel lives out back.
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That’s what Mary Lee named the red and white ’72 Buick Riviera that Don gave her that year for her birthday. Don told the mortician (only half joking) that he’d like to be buried in Jezebel. The mortician said, no, Don, you’d need a much bigger plot.
Don laughs. He jokes that this is all he wants written about him in his obit:
He was born. He lived. He died.
“And the eulogy is rather short, too: ‘He was not always as bad as he usually was.'”
This afternoon, Don sits at his kitchen table with a longtime friend, University of Nebraska Foundation staff member Greg Jensen. A digital recorder rests on the table in front of Don.
Greg came over to record Don’s stories of the war. It’s for a project for the Library of Congress, which is gathering as many stories from the war as it can from people like Don, before they’re gone. Greg’s dad was in the war, too.
“My dad hasn’t talked much about it until recent years,” Greg tells Don. “And you haven’t talked much about it until recent years to me.”
You can tell Don is one of Greg’s favorite people. Greg knows all about Mary Lee. And Jezebel. He knows all the punch lines to Don’s jokes. They met years ago, when Don started creating his scholarships.
You can tell that Don would rather tell Greg some more corny jokes than talk about the war.
“War is designed for two things,” Don says, “to destroy property and kill people. That’s what war is. It isn’t anything else. That’s what it is.
“And I saw more dead people than any mortician will ever see in a lifetime.”
He was a maintenance sergeant in a field artillery unit that was part of the 71st Division, which went the farthest east of any U.S. troops in Europe. His unit helped defuse booby-traps and bombs. Many of his missions involved delivering ammunition to the infantry, sometimes under enemy fire.
He almost died a few times. Once, a sniper’s bullet missed him by inches. Another time, he and another guy had gone to France to pick up a repair part for the artillery. As they came back into the Black Forest in Germany, they rounded a corner and there in front of them was a German barricade.
“Well, I told the driver, ‘Get out of this thing!’ The Jeep was going about 20 mph. Both of us bailed out, one on one side and one on the other. And the Jeep blew up.
“Later that evening when I decided to turn in, as I undressed, a piece of shrapnel fell out of my pants.”
It left just bruises.
“The infantry fellas determined that piece of shrapnel was a piece of Panther floss, what the Germans called their bazooka. They used it as a tank weapon. So they hit our little Jeep with a round intended to hit a tank!”
The 71st was one the first to reach the Gunskirchen Lager death camp in Austria. The death smell hit them first, Don says. The survivors were walking skeletons. He wanted to give them food. He had plenty of it on his truck, he told the medics, plenty of 2,000-calorie meal packages.
“I was told, no, we can’t take it because if we give it to them it’ll kill them – it’s too highly concentrated.”
All they could leave were blankets and clothes.
“And I agonize over that yet today when the subject comes up. Some things will remind me of that, and that’s all I can say about it because I’ll start to break down if I get into more detail about it.”
When the war ended, Don’s unit was moved to a small German town near Stuttgart. He helped set up a store in the burgermeister’s old house and hand out clothing to the displaced people of the war – “thanks to the generosity of the American people.” Most of the people he gave the goods to were from Estonia and Latvia – people the Germans had used as slave labor. Many wore shoes made of wood. Some wore shoes fashioned from tire rubber.
“We would give them leather shoes,” Don says. “And some of them had never had them in their lives. And when you gave the women silk stockings, they would break out into cheerful tears.
“The thanks and everything we got from those people was really great.”
Later, in another room in Don’s home, a small den, he pulls out some of his other favorite treasures from his long, lucky life – the many letters he’s received from his scholarship recipients. His file cabinets are full of them. Over the years, he’s given scholarships to more than 60 students. Those students in turn have given him more than 40 grandkids. (And at each grandkid’s birth, he starts a college savings fund and contributes to it on their birthdays.)
That’s what they call themselves. He loves that. He and Mary Lee had no kids of their own.
Don tells his “kids” that he’s not a generous guy, he’s just smart about his investments. He sees his scholarships as investments in their futures as teachers. Their job, he tells them, is to work hard in school and to give back to their students someday.
“Talking about this – I just recently got a letter from one of the kids. Lily Kennett.”
He picks up the letter and re-reads it.
Dear Mr. Swanson,
Thank you for making me part of your family. … I want you to know that I thank God every single day for you and for the scholarship. There are no sufficient words to express my gratitude. … The love that I experienced and felt is something I will always hold near to my heart. … Thank you for helping me in my journey to become a teacher.
Then the great man looks up.
“That,” he says, “makes everything worthwhile.”
Student support is a top priority of the Campaign for Nebraska. If you, like Don Swanson, would like to sow the seeds of education and help future teachers or other promising students at the University of Nebraska, please consider giving online or contact the University of Nebraska Foundation at 800-432-3216.