A Remembrance of Robert Swann


A Rememberance of Robert Swann

by Tom Long

FEBRUARY 19, 2003 


Robert Swann, 84, a peace activist who believed that war could be avoided by strengthening rural communities with land trusts and alternative monetary systems, died of lung cancer Jan. 13 in his home in South Egremont. 

''I have devoted most of my life to economic reform, and the strengthening of small communities,'' Mr. Swann wrote in ''Peace, Civil Rights and the Search for Community,'' a 28-chapter autobiography he posted on the Internet. ''Specifically, my work had been in land reform (trusteeship, not ownership, of land), monetary reform (interest and inflation-free money and local currencies), and cooperative ownership (worker management and ownership of the means of production).'' 

Mr. Swann was the founder of the E.F. Schumacher Society in Great Barrington, a nonprofit group that espouses the theories of the German economist and philosopher who wrote ''Small is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered.'' 

''Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent,'' wrote Schumacher. ''It takes a touch of genius -- and a lot of courage -- to move in the opposite direction.'' 

Mr. Swann was raised in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, where his sense of community was heightened by growing up on a street on which community block parties were common and movies were sometimes screened as part of the festivities. 

When his father lost his position as an executive at the local printing firm during the Great Depression, the family had to let go its maid, and its standard of living dropped considerably. ''I felt helpless to do anything about it,'' Mr. Swann wrote. ''I knew not whom to blame or whom to fight with to make the situation change.'' But he was impressed by the sense of community of the American people and the feeling that ''we're all in this together.'' 

The Rev. Joseph Sitler, minister at the local Lutheran Church, took an interest in his education, and under his tutelage young Mr. Swann read such German philosophers as Hegel, Nietzche, and Spengler, as well as novels by Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. 

Mr. Swann attended Ohio University, paying his way through school by working in restaurants for meals and selling mops door-to-door. 

During World War II, he notified his draft board that he was a conscientious objector and wouldn't comply with the Selective Service Act. He moved to a farm in Vermont, where he was arrested, and spent two years of a five-year sentence in Ashland Federal Prison in Kentucky. 

''Prison was his monastery and his university,'' his companion, Susan Witt, said yesterday. ''He was introduced to this extraordinary group of people and had plenty of time to think about the root causes of war.'' 

At the beginning of his prison term, Mr. Swann spent much time in solitary confinement because he refused to comply with many prison rules. 

He occupied himself by rolling bread into golfball-sized portions, letting it harden, and juggling and playing basketball, using his shoe for a basket. 

Conditions improved for Mr. Swann and his fellow conscientious objectors when civil rights leader Bayard Rustin became their cellmate and a sympathetic warden gave them new privileges, such as allowing them to form a study group. Among the books they studied was engineer-educator Arthur Morgan's treatise ''The Small Community.'' 

''He went in a young man and he came out educated about what he felt were solutions to the problems of war: building strong local economies, land reform, local currency -- and those are the causes to which he devoted the rest of his life,'' said Witt. 

After he was released from prison with $20 and a new suit, Mr. Swann took a bus to Washington, D.C., where he worked in a hospital before joining Arthur Morgan's nonprofit group Community Service in Yellow Springs, Ohio. 

He then worked at Circle Pines Center, a cooperative adult education camp in Michigan, where he was introduced to architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who was working on low-cost homes. For a time, Mr. Swann helped build these ''Usonian'' homes in Kalamazoo, Mich. 

Mr. Swann was instrumental in the formation of many community land trusts throughout the country and helped develop alternative money sources, such as Deli Dollars, issued by a Great Barrington delicatessen owner. Each ''dollar'' was worth $8 and could be redeemed for $10 if the holder waited six months to redeem it, in effect allowing the owner a six-month loan. 

''He was the type of guy who always had a project,'' said Witt, ''whether it was setting up an alternative monetary system, or working with farmers in India.'' 

''He was shy and didn't enjoy being the center of attention,'' she said, ''but he had a passion for ideas and an eagerness to discuss them that drew people to his world.'' 

Changing the world did not always pay the bills. Mr. Swann was also a carpenter and contractor for many years. 

Besides his companion, he leaves three daughters, Barbara, Carol and Judy; a son, Scott; a brother, James; and a grandson. 

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday in First Congregational Church in Great Barrington. 




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This story ran on page F14 of the Boston Globe on 2/19/2003. © Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.