What Happened While I Was Gone: Remembering Tony Swan

I haven’t posted  here in several years. Not that anyone would notice—I don’t post for clicks and I don’t have a lot of followers. But when people land here, especially those who might be considering whether to hire me, I like to have a relatively recent post about museums, history, or culture if for no other reason than to prove I’m alive and am keeping the site up to date.

It’s a little embarrassing that my last post was more than three years ago. My excuse is that in January of 2016 my husband (auto journalist Tony Swan) discovered that his head and neck cancer returned for the fourth or fifth time (I lost count) and this time had migrated to a lung. I quit my band, reduced my workload, and focused on helping him through his treatments and pick off items on his bucket list. I also helped my mother as she cycled between the hospital, rehab, and a nursing home near me in 2017 and 2018.

So, I let this blog—a modest outlet for the exercise of my essay-writing muscles—atrophy for awhile. Today seems like a good day to revive it.

Tony died one year ago today, September 27, 2018, at 11:45pm. My mother died a few weeks later, November 6, 2018 at age 91. She was a remarkable person as well, but since my last post was about my ex-husband after his death, it’s only fair I write about Tony this time. I’ll write about my mom next post.

I’ve written a lot about Tony already for other purposes, and his automotive journalism colleagues wrote kindly about him after his death. (Car and Driver, Detroit Free Press, Motor Trend, Minneapolis Star Tribune, The Detroit Bureau, and perhaps my favorite, The Drive.)

One year out, what do I say that hasn’t been said? My blog is nominally about history, so I’ll look at his relationship with history instead of rehashing Tony’s adventures—things like press trips, auto racing, visiting friends, encouraging colleagues, reading every day, and always, always writing—even in doctor’s waiting rooms—up to two weeks before he died.

Tony was a history major at University of Minnesota, with a minor in journalism. His bookcases were lined with history titles—all of which he actually read and most of which he remembered. Luckily for me, he loved to visit museums  and historic sites of all kinds, often giving tour guides a pleasant surprise with his excellent questions informed by prior reading. His stories—even reviews of new cars—were spiced with historical references that grounded his readers in the long view.

One of the things I miss most, next to hugs and the excellent coffee he made every morning, was exchanging our drafts and reading each others’ work. It was always a great conversation. We’d ask questions, clarify details, check facts, and generally make each others’ work better.

While I could go on at length, this is a blog post, not a book. I’ll finish with the last thing Tony read: Winston Churchill’s 6-volume set The Second World War. He picked away at it all year. Two weeks before he died, we ended up in the ER and then in intensive care at the Mayo Clinic when he started to bleed out on our drive home from his hometown of Mound, Minnesota. (That often happens with head-and-neck cancer patients in late stages.) When he got to a room, he didn’t want his laptop or his phone—he wanted Churchill’s Volume 6, so he could finish it. He knew he wasn’t long for this world. But still he wanted to read history.

He was an atheist, and didn’t believe in a religious afterlife. While Tony never put it in words, I think studying history gave him confidence in a sort of intellectual afterlife: he could pass away knowing that he, like all of us, would be part of the slipstream of history.

Since Tony’s death, hearing and reading the many tributes of his colleagues led me to realize that perhaps his best contribution to the slipstream of history was helping and inspiring other journalists to do these three things: know their history, to give honest opinions, and to work at educating themselves. Tony, like all of us, was far from perfect, but he was able and willing to grow and evolve throughout his life. I admire that.

He didn’t want to fade away, and he found a way not to. I hope I can do the same.

Drive fast, take chances.

I miss you Tony.

Tony’s first car, Mound, Minnesota, 1957.
Tony’s 12,331st* car, Ypsilanti, Michigan, about 2004. (*press cars, not personal)
Tony’s last car, April, 2018, Ypsilanti Michigan.