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Published April 29 2012

A life less ordinary: Kindred native grows up to meet Eleanor Roosevelt, lead national medical society

FARGO - Adele Swenson has no idea why her life turned out the way it did.

She was a poor farm girl, yet she grew up to have tea with Eleanor Roosevelt.

She knew nothing about science, but wound up as head of the Radiological Society of North America.

She never considered herself a leader, but won the Harold Schafer Leadership Award from the University of Mary last fall.

Swenson accomplished much in her long life, yet still looks back at the high points with a mixture of modesty and awe.

“No, I don’t understand my life, or why people ask me to do things for which I have no expertise,” she says. “The big secret is to work with people who are smarter than you.”

Today, Swenson lives in Fargo in a sun-filled apartment at Touchmark at Harwood Groves (formerly the Waterford). With her peaches-and-cream complexion, sparkly green eyes and lively wit, Swenson seems at least a decade younger than her 90 years.

And even if Swenson seems surprised by her past successes, those who know her are not.

“Adele is being modest,” says Kari Dick, executive director of Touchmark at Harwood Groves. “She is a hero to many of us and a role model. It’s incredible everything she’s accomplished – especially at a time when a lot of women weren’t in those roles.”

Lessons learned early

Swenson describes herself as “triple-whammy kid” growing up in Kindred. Her early years coincided with three monumental events: the Depression, a great drought and a world war.

The experiences instilled in Swenson a work ethic and lack of entitlement often attributed to members of the so-called “Greatest Generation.”

“We didn’t have expectations,” Swenson says. “The expectation for ourselves was to make some money so we could help our families and to live decently and have some fun.”

Swenson also was influenced by her parents, Henry and Inga Swenson, hardworking farmers of Norwegian stock. They struggled to keep their farm during the Depression, yet fed any hobos who showed up on their doorstep.

From her parents and her extended family, Swenson says she learned to respect others, to be egalitarian and kind.

She also inherited the iron-clad DNA of several generations of strong women. Both her mother and grandmother bought out their brothers to farm.

“My grandmothers haunt me,” she says with a smile.

‘One year of normal’

As a top graduate of her high school, Swenson received a full scholarship to Jamestown College – which was fortunate, as she could not afford the $100 annual tuition in 1940. Thanks to extra work as a nanny and secretary, she was able to cover her living expenses.

At the coaxing of her adviser, Swenson agreed to study economics, even though the subject didn’t thrill her.

“People always wanted me to be first in something,” she says, chuckling. “My adviser wanted me to the first woman graduate in economics.”

Swenson’s freshman year marked the only “year of normal” during her early life before another life-changing event hit.

In her sophomore year, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Most of the male students left school to enlist.

With war work on everyone’s minds, Swenson and a friend decided it was their patriotic duty to relocate to Washington, D.C., after graduation to become “government girls.”

‘A government girl’

Uncle Sam was protective of the “government girls” who flocked to Washington to fill jobs vacated by men. The federal government paid their train fare and made sure everyone had a safe place to stay.

Swenson’s first job was in a steno pool, typing up court-martial proceedings. “It was the first time I heard all of that ugly language,” she recalls.

She also met and worked alongside black women for the first time in her life. She was puzzled when one of her new friends turned down an offer to accompany her to movie.

“Of course I was a total idiot,” Swenson says. “I didn’t even know they couldn’t go to our movie theaters.”

Swenson was later recruited to work for industrial psychologist Esther Strong in the Navy.

The Navy was at the forefront of a burgeoning field called human resources. So Swenson’s role was to compile and analyze statistics on what motivated this new breed of American employee called a white-collar worker.

Tea with the first lady

On one assignment, Swenson worked with first lady Eleanor Roosevelt on programs for returning veterans. She also worked with her on another program that helped female government workers attend college at night so they didn’t have to return to low-paying jobs.

“I can’t imagine anyone with the level of energy and compassion that she had,” Swenson says of Roosevelt.

Swenson recalls a tea that included the first lady as special guest. Everyone warned them that this was strictly a formality, and Roosevelt wouldn’t eat a bite.

“But she loaded up her plate and visited with all of us,” Swenson recalls, laughing. “She was so natural. It was just wonderful.”

Overall, Swenson says, it was a heady time to live in the nation’s capital. The streets would be filled with young soldiers one day; a few weeks later, some of them would be gone forever.

“It was emotional overload,” Swenson says. “There was so much fun and then so much sadness.”

Swenson was eventually called home to help on the farm. For a while she taught school, then worked at Brown and Bigelow, a St. Paul printing company.

Regardless of the responsibilities she had, Swenson – like almost every other female worker in postwar America – was classified as a secretary.

“I always said, ‘Would it have been better if the men were gone for four years and then came back and didn’t have a job?’ That wouldn’t have been fair. We expected it,” she says.

A pioneering leader

The 1950s brought big company mergers, and Swenson saw many once-ethical companies be absorbed into faceless corporations. That’s why she felt drawn to the management team of the Girl Scouts of America.

“I thought at least they have to be honest,” she says, smiling.

She worked in Rochester, Minn., eventually becoming executive director of the River Trails Girls Scout Council. In that position, she unified the council’s leadership and solved its financial problems.

The Radiological Society of North America took note of Swenson’s work and considered offering her a job as executive director in the early 1970s.

But in the hiring process, the job description was beefed up with additional responsibilities – and pay. This prompted one board member to remark that the job was now big enough to be held by a man.

RSNA representatives proceeded to interview three male candidates but didn’t like any of them.

Finally, someone said: “Maybe we made a mistake. We should go back to Adele.”

And they did. Under Swenson’s 14-year guidance, the organization prospered. She helped to improve the quality of the society’s existing journal, started a second scientific journal, “RadioGraphics,” and shepherded the organization through major advances like CT scan technology.

“I have my little degree in economics from Jamestown State, I was a very poor kid, and here I am trying to give leadership to radiologists and physicists, who are some of the most highly educated people you have,” Swenson says. “Fortunately, you don’t really have to be an expert to provide leadership.”

Swenson innately knew the secrets to good leadership: Listen more, ask questions and don’t be afraid to surround yourself with the best and the brightest.

Retired to her ‘Corvette’

During her time with the RSNA, Swenson also volunteered. One of her most memorable – and heartbreaking – stints involved working with inner-city youth in Syracuse, N.Y.

It was the first time Swenson understood what true poverty meant.

“I was brought up to pull myself up by my bootstraps, but they didn’t have any boots to pull up,” she says.

After retirement, Swenson bought a Minnesota lake home, although she continued consulting for various companies.

Last year, she decided to move to Fargo to be closer to her older sister and to not be as isolated.

Today, Swenson wears hearing aids and walks with a three-wheeled walker – which she calls her “Corvette” – for mobility and balance.

But mentally, she’s as sharp as the days when she hobnobbed with scientists.

She lays out her church newsletter on computer, mentors other residents and serves on a Touchmark “project team.” (Always progressive, even in matters of corporate nomenclature, Adele insisted on calling it that instead of a “committee.”)

She’s also on Facebook (“I’m not really good at it, but I check it”) and keeps her synapses snapping by reading publications like The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal and Vanity Fair.

Swenson’s wisdom and good sense are so respected that Touchmark staff now routinely use her as a sounding board.

“She’s such a good resource,” says Anne-Marie Fitz, a Touchmark life enrichment coordinator who has developed a close friendship with Swenson. “That’s why we have to run everything by her.”

She has won multiple awards to commemorate an extraordinary life, including a Harold Schafer Leadership Award from the University of Mary. (Although Swenson jokes her family has been “Lutheran for 300 years,” she is a great admirer and friend of the Benedictine sisters.)

She admits it has taken her awhile to adjust to her new home, but now looks forward to breakfast table conversations with other retirees who have lived fascinating lives.

“I thought growing old gracefully was a myth,” Swenson says. “(My tablemates) are growing old so gracefully and with such compassion.”

After a lifetime of work and giving to others, Adele Swenson has finally found the perfect nest.

“It’s taken me a year to get there,” she says, “but now I’m home.”

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Tammy Swift at (701) 241-5525