Two for the Books

Bob and Barbara Swords, husband and wife, served as scholars and teachers at Elmhurst for more than three decades. They continue to serve their former students as models, mentors, and friends.

On a July day in 1952, a recent University of Chicago graduate student and World War II veteran rode an Aurora & Elgin electric train out to Elmhurst from the city and walked almost a mile north toward the local college, which he had never seen. Impressed by a stately, columned building fronting on a broad expanse of grass, he climbed its steps, approached the front desk, and introduced himself as an applicant for a teaching position in the Eng-lish department.

“This is the public library,” he was kindly informed. “You want to go across the street.”

Robert Swords then crossed Prospect Avenue into a new life. That day, he began a remarkable association with Elmhurst College, one that would come to embrace his wife, Barbara, and two subsequent generations of their family, and that continues to this day. The only husband-and-wife team of professors emeriti in the College’s history, Bob and Barbara Swords have been part of the Elmhurst community for more than a half-century, shaping the lives of thousands of students and the life of the College itself.

Bob Swords grew up in the Denver of the 1920s and ’30s, which he says was very much a cow town. “I had always wanted to go east,” he recalls, “and when I got to Chicago, I thought I had made it.”

In 1942, he entered the University of Chicago. This put him in the same class as Barbara Winchester, of Western Springs, Illinois. As we sat recently in the living room of the couple’s Georgian house just west of campus—“We can see the spire of Hammerschmidt Chapel from our window,” Barbara says—I asked if they had found love at first sight on the Midway.

“It was friendship at first sight,” he says. “There was no space in the regular exam rooms, and because we were toward the end of the alphabet—Swords and Winchester—we ended up in an overflow room. We were both English majors and professional complainers.”

It was a heady era on the Midway. Under its legendary “boy president,” Robert Maynard Hutchins, the university was undertaking a daring educational overhaul. In addition to axing the school’s venerable football program—shocking enough in itself—Hutchins had instituted an innovative academic program, heavy on the humanities and the social and natural sciences, and with an accelerated schedule. “We were very proud to be there,” says Barbara. “It was an exciting time.”

Few in Hyde Park knew just how exciting it really was. In 1942, scientists were conducting early work on the atomic bomb in secrecy, under the stands of the recently abandoned football stadium, Stagg Field. “We knew some areas were off limits,” Barbara says. “There was something called the metallurgy project, but that didn’t fit with all the physicists who were around at the time, including Enrico Fermi.”

At the time, Bob and Barbara Swords had what seemed like a more pressing concern: getting through their courses on the accelerated schedule mandated by the Hutchins revolution. Both successfully navigated the rigorous two-year program and moved on to graduate courses.

Then Robert’s studies were interrupted by service in World War II. “I went to Alaska in the Army on something called ‘Task Force Frigid,’” he recalls. “The object was to find out if war could be waged in those arctic conditions. To me, the answer was, ‘Absolutely not!’”

With the war’s end, he came home and returned to Hyde Park. By then, Barbara had earned her master’s degree. In 1947 they were married. While he continued his studies, she taught English at Wilbur Wright College, a two-year institution on the city’s Northwest Side.

“I was 22, and many of my students at Wright were returning servicemen who were about 28,” she recalls. “It was one of the most impressive experiences of my life. I learned how to teach adult students. Today, people talk about ‘non-traditional’ college students, as if that’s some-thing new. Well, I always had non-traditional students.”

When Bob finished his graduate work, he visited the university’s placement office and found a posting for an English instructor’s job at Elmhurst College. This inspired the ride out on the Aurora & Elgin, which, after the library detour, resulted in his joining the Elmhurst faculty. He began to teach in the fall term of 1952.

“We had never been to a small college before,” Barbara says. “It was an interesting setting: a church-related, liberal arts school. Many other young faculty members came at the same time Bob did, with their wives and babies.”

Bob Swords soon established himself in the English department, eventually becoming its chair. Barbara took a hiatus from teaching and concentrated on rearing their two children, Susan and Stephen.

Her hiatus was interrupted in the spring of 1957, when Elmhurst took in a group of college students from Hungary after their country’s gallant but failed revolt against the Soviet Union. “The college hired a Berlitz teacher who worked with them,” Barbara recalls. “Then I taught them a mini-course in English composition for six weeks. They were eager to learn and glad to be here. ‘This is our only chance,’ one of them said.”

In 1960, Barbara joined Bob on the English depart-ment faculty. “Someone said to me, ‘Well, Barbara, I’ll bet you get the best rooms,’” because Bob, the department chair, assigned the classrooms. “‘No, I’ll get a closet,’ I said, ‘because Bob knows he can get away with it!’”

“She got the same rooms as everyone else,” Bob interjects with a laugh.

The following year, Robert Swords began a twelve-year stint as the College registrar. He also directed the Evening Session, a program for adult students, and in 1965 established the Summer Session. “We thought we’d start small, maybe 500 students. We ended that first year with 800.” All the while, Swords continued to teach. “I think it’s important that administrators keep contact with the classroom,” he says.

The 1960s was a turbulent time on college campuses, in and out of the classroom. At Elmhurst, Bob Swords teamed with Bob Clark, a philosophy professor, to conduct a timely freshman honors course called The Meanings of Freedom. “It was in the years of student upheaval, and this was a very free-wheeling course,” Swords recalls. “We had neo-Marxists, Maoists, a whole crop of interesting students.”

Around the same time, the College introduced the Common Course, a controversial educational reform. “We wanted every freshman to have the same course at the same time,” Swords says. “Topics included race relations, environmental issues. Faculty members were asked to teach courses not in their discipline.” That last aspect was not universally popular. “The Common Course was radical,” he acknowledges. “Some on the faculty—I’m not going to say who—were out to kill it, and they did.”

Another 1960s innovation was more enduring. This was the 4-1-4 program—the numbers refer to the months in each of three academic terms. The program gives students the option to take a single, concentrated course each January. This “J-Term” course (originally called the “Interim”) has become an established and popular part of the curriculum.

“It was great for both students and teachers, because for those few weeks they lived a course,” says Bob. “For instance, one course covered all six novels of Jane Austen. Another was on the work of the three Brontë sisters. I introduced a course on literary criticism.” Known as Lit Crit, it became one of Bob’s favorite courses. “I thought our students who were going on to graduate school needed a course in great literary criticism,” he explains. “We studied the works of Plato, Aristotle, Dryden, among others.”

Barbara Swords taught both the Austen and Brontë courses during that first January Term. “We met four mornings a week from nine to noon.” (Her interest in Jane Austen continues to this day—when we met, she was rereading Pride and Prejudice. In 1988, she gave a paper on the novelist at the Jane Austen Society’s annual meeting, in Chicago. The paper was later published in Persuasions, the Society’s journal.)

Over the years, the couple took numerous trips to Europe. Robert enjoyed visiting France’s Brittany region; its stone megaliths are a particular interest of his. The couple also led tour groups to London to see theatre in the West End.

In their book-laden living room, Barbara brings up the fact that her husband has some stage experience of his own. He raises a hand to stop her, but she prevails. “For many years Bob performed in the Homecoming musicals,” she says. “Cabaret, Anything Goes, Finian’s Rainbow.”

Impressed by a Bob Swords performance, an audience member asked Barbara if he had ever worked in the theatre before. She told the story to a friend, who laughed. “Every class he does is a performance,” she said.

Bob and Barbara Swords both retired from the College in 1989. They stay busy. Bob reads up to three books simul-taneously, with his preferences running toward literary criticism and eighteenth-century fiction and aesthetics. “I’m also interested in classical epic and drama, and in very early Greek prose fiction, like Longus and Heliodorus—folks almost nobody pays any mind to—as well as serious contemporary fiction.” Barbara is a longtime member of the local chapter of the League of Women Voters. As the league’s library board observer, she was instrumental in its recommendation that Elmhurst build a new public library, which opened in 2003. The library’s director calls Barbara a “Renaissance woman.”

Both of the couple’s children have followed their par-ents into academe. Stephen Swords is an English professor at Eastern Illinois University, in Charleston. Susan Swords Steffen, a graduate of Carleton College and the University of Chicago, is the director of the A.C. Buehler Library at Elmhurst College, a position she assumed in 1997.

Growing up in a literary household, says Susan, meant that “dinner table conversation ranged all over the place, but it often centered on literature. We’re a family where everybody reads all the time.” Christmas is usually “an exchange of books.”

Susan’s son, Jason Swords Steffen, made the family’s connection with Elmhurst a three-generation affair. He graduated from the College in February with a degree in music education, and has been student-teaching at a middle school in La Grange. Keenly aware of his grandparents’ legacy, he is hardly surprised at his own interest in teaching. “I must have gotten it from somewhere,” he laughs. Jason’s sister, Emily, is a freshman at Colorado College. She plans to major in English and also to become a teacher.

The Swords take obvious pride in Elmhurst College. “The school’s greatest strength has always been its faculty,” Barbara says. “The physical plant wasn’t razzle-dazzle before, but now it’s a fine plant. And we’re so pleased the school is getting recognized for its quality.” Robert says that although he doesn’t place a lot of stock in college rankings, he nonetheless is glad to see Elmhurst placing high in the U.S.News & World Report survey of Midwestern colleges. “What I’m surprised by is how good Elmhurst College really is,” he says. “That doesn’t mean it wasn’t always good. But nobody knew about us, except those who had been touched by us.”

The couple stay close to former faculty colleagues, and maintain contact with a number of former students. I asked three of them—Cathy Notari Davidson, Douglas Mayfield, and David Rasche—for their recollections of Bob and Barbara Swords. Each responded with an e-mail that captures something of the enduring legacy of two master teachers.

Cathy Notari Davidson, ’70, is vice provost for interdisciplinary studies at Duke University. She recalls an e-mail she got from Bob Swords a few months ago, commenting on the revised edition of her book, Revolution and the Word, about literacy and the rise of popular fiction at the time of America’s birth.

“He made a dead-on comment about the one place in the new edition where I allowed myself to critique a scholar whose work I consider sophistical and wrong-headed,” she says. “I had to rework that sentence at least three times, toning it down each time, but finally leaving my critique in place. Bob zeroed right in on it, with a comment so precise and so right, I laughed out loud.

“I remember that so clearly from his teaching: razor-sharp intelligence, and always a bristling humor. Together, he and Barbara were even more remarkable. I remember the way they could dissect local and national politics—the acuity, the accuracy, and always, the wit.”

Douglas Mayfield, ’73, teaches English at a high school and community college in Minnesota. “I drifted onto the Elmhurst campus in 1971, after a year at the University of Iowa, where the closest I got to a professor was a seat in the balcony of a lecture hall,” he recalls. “On the first day of class at Elmhurst—a class with sixteen students—it took me ten minutes to realize I was in the presence of a brilliant scholar, Robert Swords. For the next two-and-a-half years, I took every class Bob offered. When no course was available, we did independent study—sometimes in his office, other times in his home, where he and Barbara always made me feel welcome.

“One morning, Bob and I were trying to determine what area we should explore next. ‘Where do you feel weak?’ he asked.

“I thought for a few seconds. ‘I don’t like poetry.’

“Bob looked around as if to see if anyone had heard me. ‘You’re an English major who will probably be a teacher some day. I suggest you never repeat that comment outside this office. We need to fix it right away.’

“We did. I soon loved poetry, and taught a college class in contemporary poetry for many years.

 “Bob Swords created me. I reinvented myself in his image, became the finest student I could, dedicated my master’s thesis to him, and got a job teaching English. Over the years we’ve stayed close in touch. I seek Bob’s opinion on professional questions, personal matters.

“Recently we exchanged a number of letters and e-mails about retirement, something for which I’m now eligible.

“‘Are you still at the top of your game?’ he asked.

“‘Yes, I believe I am.’

“‘Then why would you want to retire?’”

David Rasche, ’66, is an accomplished stage, film, and television actor. He remembers Bob Swords as “my confidant, my advisor, really my mentor. His door was always open to me. I was a high-strung young man, and I would come sweeping into his office with some crisis that seemed insurmountable, some impending disaster, and he would bring me back to earth. ‘Well, I think we should calm down here,’ he’d say. ‘I think things might—notice I said might—not be as bleak as you paint them.’ We would talk it out and the crisis would pass.

“Barbara Swords was my freshman English teacher. In my protected, conservative, small-town life, I had never met anyone like her. I can still see her perched on the corner of her desk, trying to penetrate the thick heads of her earnest students.

“An incident that stands out concerns a chapter called ‘The Bear,’ from a Faulkner novel. Barbara asked what we thought of ‘The Bear.’

“We thought it was fine.

“Did we like it?

“Well, yes, we guessed we did.

“‘Did anyone think it was funny?’

“No response.

“‘There’s a character named Flem Snopes. Anybody think that’s a funny name?’

“We didn’t at first. We didn’t think we were allowed to have fun in class. It never occurred to us that literature could be anything but dry and inscrutable.

“Barbara changed that. She walked us through ‘The Bear,’ pointing out not just the imagery, plot, and character, but also the irony and the wit. And she began to thaw our frozen brains.

“She was witty, she was pretty, she was patient and bright, and she gently brought me out of my cluelessness and taught me that literature was not distant, not about other people. It was about me. Or, rather, it was the product of writers who, as they told us how they viewed the world and what was going on inside of them, illuminated what was going on inside of each of us.”

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