Barbara Winchester Swords, 1925-2012 | Elmhurst College


Barbara Winchester Swords, 1925-2012

Barbara Winchester Swords had it all, long before pundits and societal observers began wondering whether it was even possible. She was a beloved wife, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. She was an active volunteer in the Elmhurst community where she and her husband, Robert W. Swords, lived for 60 years and raised their family. And as an English professor for 30 years at Elmhurst College, Barbara Swords had a fulfilling, meaningful career that made a significant impact on not only the hundreds of students she taught, but also the College itself. 

Professor Swords died peacefully, surrounded by family, on Tuesday, October 23, 2012. She was 87. 

Barbara Winchester was a student at the University of Chicago in 1942 when she met Robert W. Swords. Both graduated with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English. In 1947 they were married, and Robert Swords began teaching at Elmhurst College in 1952.

Barbara Swords joined the Elmhurst College faculty in 1960, and she and her husband would go on to teach at the College for more than three decades.

“Barbara Swords was a strong, intelligent and forthright person,” said Elmhurst College President S. Alan Ray. “She loved Elmhurst College and its history, yet I recall her excitement when we discussed our plans for the future. Above all, Barbara always insisted we observe the highest standards of teaching and scholarship. Her own contributions to the life of the College over a lifetime show she held herself to those same high standards. I feel privileged to have known her.”

As a professor during the women’s rights movement, she worked to increase support for and influence by women on the faculty, mentoring new female professors and serving on a number of academic committees, said her daughter, Susan Swords Steffen, an Elmhurst College faculty member and director of the A.C. Buehler Library.

But above all, Professor Swords loved being a teacher. “She had a great ability to write, to communicate, and loved being able to teach people to do that,” Swords Steffen said. “She loved people and telling their stories. She believed you could bring people to life through story.”

Barbara and Robert Swords retired in 1989 and were named professors emeriti in 1996. After her retirement, Professor Swords remained a strong supporter of Elmhurst College. In 2006, after the death of her husband, she established the Robert W. Swords Memorial Fund. Through the fund, Professor Swords has assisted the College’s Honors Program, the English department and the A.C. Buehler Library.

She also remained a constant source of encouragement and assistance to individual students, insisting that she live close to campus so that students and friends could visit her.

Only a few days before her death, she helped a student who was eager to join a study-abroad trip to Europe in January. The student, the first in her family to attend college, didn’t have enough money to go, yet “for her, this trip would make all the difference,” Swords Steffen said. Professor Swords sat down and, without hesitation, wrote out a check.

In 2010, the College awarded one of its highest honors, the Founders Medal, to Professor Swords for her commitment of time and talent in service to Elmhurst.

“She had a huge impact on the College, and has always been a strong supporter of everything we’re about,” Swords Steffen said.

After retiring from the College, Professor Swords also remained active in the Elmhurst community, serving as the library board observer for the Elmhurst League of Women Voters and leading a study that called for the construction of a new public library. The League’s endorsement and active support led to a successful $18.7 million library referendum. 

Professor Swords is survived by her daughter, Susan Swords Steffen; her son, Stephen; five grandchildren, including Jason Swords Steffen ’06; and a great-granddaughter.

A memorial service on the Elmhurst College campus will be held at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, December 1, in the Founders Lounge of the Frick Center.

In lieu of flowers, memorial gifts to Elmhurst College for The Barbara and Robert W. Swords Memorial Endowed Fund are greatly appreciated. To make your gift, please visit this secure website or call the development office at (866) 794-1075.

Robert and Barbara Swords, and their careers as teachers and scholars at Elmhurst College, are featured in Two for the Books, an article in the Spring 2006 issue of the College’s magazine, Prospect.

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