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Tributes to the Life of Bob Swann

Olivia Dreier, President of the Schumacher Center, associate director of the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding:

Tribute from the 20th anniversary of the Schumacher Center: There are many people whose ideas inspire me tremendously, but I think there are few people whose ideas are embodied in the very dailyness of their lives in such a way that their whole life is an inspiration. Bob, you are one of those people for me and, I think, for many of us. You are one of the most practical idealists I have ever met. It seems to be a natural imperative for you to find a moral and common-sense response to whatever you meet in your world, no matter how daunting and complex the problem. In this regard you are indefatigable.

Recently I had the opportunity to have dinner with Bob and a wonderful Gandhian, Dwarko Sundrani, who has worked for the past forty years in Bihar, one of the poorest states in India. I worked with him for a couple of years in the early seventies; Bob also had visited him there. Over dinner Bob and Dwarko became very excited about what they could still accomplish together and developed grand schemes of starting a world-wide Gramdam movement, the movement begun by Vinoba Bhave to bring about self-reliance in Indian villages. At one point Susan Witt looked at them both-they’re the same age-and said, “My goodness, if you two men were thirty years younger, what you could do together!” Bob looked at Susan and shot back, “We still can!”

Bob, I have no doubt that you still can, but I want you to know that what you have already launched in your life, together with the numbers of people you have inspired, has set tremendous things in motion. If half of us can learn to live with the kind of steadfastness in our daily lives and with that quality of responsiveness you exhibit, the world will be a much better place. We thank you.

John McClaughry, Chairman of the Board of the Schumacher Center, President of the Ethan Allan Institute:

I first met Bob Swann in 1970 when we worked together on a project to help a group of poor black sharecroppers in Georgia gain control of a large productive farm enterprise. At that time it would have been the largest commercial farm owned by black people in the South. Working with Bob I quickly came to appreciate his stainless personal character, his ever inquisitive and inventive mind, and especially his principled commitment to the ideals of justice, truth, decency, fair play, and advancement of the human condition.

Over the many years I watched that commitment flower-in the creation of community land trusts, in the Exeter constant experiment, and in the Schumacher Center, which since 1980 has so steadfastly promoted the decentralist ideals of human scale, mutual aid, strong communities, and reverence for the land.

Most of us personally know few men and women who have achieved true greatness in their lives. Bob Swann was such a man. Though his name and picture rarely if ever appeared on the front page of a newspaper, Bob Swann inspired countless others with his commitment to ethical living, his gift of joyous example, and his life of purposeful accomplishment for the benefit of humanity. Everyone who knew Bob came to appreciate his quiet greatness, and to love him for what he was and what he did.

The great Athenian statesman Pericles observed that “It is not wealth that delights in the latter stages of life, so much as honor.” And so it is with Bob Swann, a man I dearly loved, whose memory will long be honored by the thousands who knew him as a hero of the humanity we all share.

Hildegarde Hannum, translator/editor, board member of the Schumacher Center:

In the early 1980s, as a member of the Schumacher Center and later as a board member, I came to know Robert Swann and to love him, as all of us did who worked with him.

Bob was in the forefront of the decentralist movement for half a century. His commitment began during his years in prison as a conscientious objector in World War II when his readings introduced him to decentralist thought, and that commitment remained unwavering.

After a decade as a peace activist resisting the deployment of nuclear weapons, participating in the civil rights movement, and continuing his nonviolent civil disobedience, in 1967 he turned to putting his ideas concerning economic reform into practice.

Working to strengthen small communities, he introduced the Community Land Trust movement into this country and was one of the initial promoters of local currencies. He also established one of the first socially responsible investment funds.

After co-founding the Schumacher Center in 1980 he served as its president for two decades, inspiring many by his dedication to the goals of peace, social justice, economic reform, and a society based on human scale. It is a privilege to have worked with him.

David Ehrenfeld, professor of biology at Rutgers, author, board member of the Schumacher Center:

Tribute from the 20th anniversary of the Schumacher Center: Bob, I’ve had the privilege of knowing you for, I guess, twenty years, since the founding of the Schumacher Center. You had of course been doing great things long before that happened, but I’ve learned about them only gradually. And for me the twenty years that I’ve known you have been years of continuous discovery of your amazing qualities. Bob, you are a model of intellectual creativity and productivity, of honesty, of steadfastness of purpose, compassion, moral strength, hard work, technical survival skills and self-sufficiency, master carpenter and builder, and finally, something which doesn’t always go with all these other traits: humility. In other words, as I realized when I was putting together this list, you embody all by yourself the important qualities found in a healthy community. So how fortunate we’ve been to have you and to have Susan, who shares all these qualities, to lead the Schumacher Center in pointing the way to the sustainable communities that we’re going to have to create if we are to survive. Bob, it’s a great privilege and honor to know you.

Ganson Taggart, retired chemical engineer with Badger Corp, board member of the Schumacher Center:

Tribute from the 20th anniversary of the Schumacher Center: Bob is a good friend of Wendell Berry’s, and I’d like to read from a recent letter that Wendell Berry sent Bob:

In England I spent some time with Vandana Shiva, Helena Norberg-Hodge, and others of like mind. Because of “globalization” farmers seem to be in much the same serious trouble all over the world. But the effort for the renewal of local economies is equally extensive. The problems are great, but it is encouraging to know that a lot of intelligent people know how to respond. I never forget to be grateful for what you have contributed, in both intelligence and courage, to this effort.
Your friend,

I want to add my own gratitude to Bob for his persistence, his sacrifice, his intelligence, his devotion, his understanding, and his great vision. And for his wonderful effort to help make this world a better place. Thanks, Bob. It’s a great privilege to have known you for these many years.

Kirkpatrick Sale, author, board member of the Schumacher Center:

As some of you may know, Bob early in his career was a builder who worked for Frank Lloyd Wright. And he told me this story once about how the workers were putting together a brick wall in a house for Wright, and he had designed it with a particular curve. As you may know, it’s not so easy working with bricks in a curve-that’s why you don’t see it done very often. But these workers spent a week laying it out, building it up, getting the curve just the way it looked in the plans. But then Wright came in, and he said, “No, no, that’s not the right curve! Take it all down. Take it down and do it better.” And so they took it down, and they spent the next week putting up the wall again until they got it right.

And Bob Swann learned how to make things, how to build things, right. That’s what he spent his life doing-in the civil rights and anti-war movements, in community land trust initiatives, in the Schumacher Center. For his ability to build things right, we will always remember him.

Wendell Berry, farmer, author, poet, advisor of the Schumacher Center:

From my several encounters with Bob Swann, beginning about 1980, I have a good many memories of him that are dear to me. What I know from all of them is that he has never been a man who in any way falsified or misrepresented himself in order to “make an impression.” Or, to put it a different way, your “impression” of him after you had known him for a few hours would stand the test of knowing him for twenty years.

The memory of him that I like most comes from a meeting we both attended in Dallas. Bob’s assignment was a panel discussion, which took place in a small theater in the center of town. The other members of the panel were a couple of Dallas businessmen and the head of one of the New York stock exchanges-pretty high-powered company, it seemed to me.

I was anxious for Bob, because in such circumstances I would have been anxious for myself. But Bob sat on the stage with the outward quiet that can come only from an inward quiet. He listened courteously to the other people throughout. He didn’t object, correct, or interrupt. When his turn came to speak, he said his say quietly, confidently, kindly, modestly, with candor and clarity, and without any open acknowledgement that what he was saying was opposed to anything that the others had said. Right in front of the financial Bigtime and its inflated optimism, he simply stood his argument on its legs, backed away, and let it stand.

He was speaking, of course, of the importance of local economy, local credit, local currency. And I remember the enormous gratitude I felt for what he was saying, and for what he was.

Letter from Jane Jacobs, regional planner, author:

October 2000

Dear Bob,

I picture you in your sunny room at Cameron House working on your autobiography, and this is to let you know that, as an avid reader much looking forward to reading it, I urge you on. You have a wonderfully interesting and original-as well as inspiring-story to tell. I know that your varied work already speaks of it in varied forms, but only an autobiography can pull it all together. That’s what I’m looking forward to. No need to reply to this note-keep writing on what’s important!

You must know how often I think of you, and what a privilege I have found it to know you. In fact, it’s a privilege to send you best wishes and love.

Jane Jacobs

Wes Jackson, founder of The Land Institute:

Bob Swann has stood nearly alone on moral ground few of us even attempted to ascend. In doing so he has identified countless possibilities, which has made a larger measure of hope possible for a more sensible sustainable future.

Vicki Robins, author:

Some heroes are ‘sung’ with great choruses in their lifetimes. Some are quiet, their steady flow of gifts offered without great fanfare. Bob Swann has given the world the great service of keeping the light of one of humanity’s great modern stars, E. F. Schumacher, glowing and growing for decades. As we turn the tide away from deadly economic systems and towards human-scale communities of grace and mutuality, we owe much to Bob Swann for his unwavering guidance.

John McKnight, Director of Community Studies, Northwestern University:

So many of us get lost in the lands of illusion. One of these is mapped by people called economists. Bob Swann was the explorer who left their mythic places and found the way to abundance rather than scarcity.

David Haenke, bioregional organizer and forester:

Considering the totality of Bob’s work, I’m most awestruck at the depth and enormity of it and honored beyond measure to have been some small part of it. These considerations really help me put my own work in perspective as well. I hope his biography will reflect how much his work has meant to us all in the bioregional movement.

Ward Morehouse, President of the Intermediate Technology Development Group, North America:

You were a giant among those of us who have tried to follow the ideals set forth by Fritz Schumacher. We are, all of us so situated in debt to you for showing us the way. From the beginning of your pioneering work on Community Land Trusts and Community-based Currencies, you have truly ‘walked the talk’.

Shann Turnbull, businessman and author:

Conversations with Bob have always been about innovative ideas to make the world a better place. He talked only about people, if pressed, to be polite and rarely about material things unless it concerned appropriate technology.

The ways in which Bob was interested in making the world a better place cut to the heart of the capitalist system. That is, to change the rules for owning property and creating money. Bob has developed more equitable rules for owning land to become the ‘Father of the Community Land Trust Movement’. He worked persistently on creating and developing community currencies and encouraged democratization in the control of money and enterprises. From 1982-84 Bob and Susan Witt held a series of seminars for community activists which illustrated his commitment and his practical, down-to-earth passion to make a difference at the grass roots level of society and resulted in the publication of Building Sustainable Communities: Tools and Concepts for Self-Reliant Economic Change, with contributions from George Benello, Robert Swann, and Shann Turnbull (edited by Ward Morehouse) in 1989.

However, Bob could also open doors to the most influential places in the world. He had creditability because he was so highly committed to good causes, and he was both guileless and selfless. Bob was making the world a better place by exercising the power of the powerless -ideas, commitment and the creditability of selflessness. Only Ghandi and Mandela come to mind as persons for comparison.

Samuel W. Smith, farmer, caretaker:

Of the times I have had a chance to be with Bob, the most memorable was when he asked me to join him on a three-week trip to England in the spring of 1970. It was a period when the possibility of hyperinflation especially in England and Europe appeared on the horizon of many prominent currencies.

The primary purpose of the trip was to suggest that an alternative currency, the “constant,” might be a way out of the then current crisis as well as part of a model monetary structure for more enduring, socially just, and ecologically sound economies. We met with a diversity of English leaders from Fritz Schumacher to the Chairman of Barclays Bank to discuss the concept of a currency tied to a basket of commodities, in other words, a currency that could not be manipulated by an elite of wealth and power. The message was received with deep interest although nothing more came of it at the time. But Bob never regretted that and other journeys because in the ensuing years alternative currencies have taken root throughout the world.

Bob has been a revolutionary activist in other areas, including the central Biblical idea of justice in the land for all creatures. Indeed, for me as a farmer and a caretaker of the land, Bob’s greatest influence has been his persistent advocacy of a higher human relationship to the land through the Community Land Trust.

For the many who aspire to continue in Bob’s footsteps, he will always be first and foremost a teacher and pollinator who, like the bee, lives only a brief time but is accountable for sustaining many of the earth’s irreplaceable species in perpetuity.

Kael Loftus, former intern at the Schumacher Center, former member of the Yale Student Environmental Coalition:

Bob was a hands-on, can-do guy. I have a vivid memory of the two of us working together to add insulation to my cabin just before the winter of ’93, when at times the temperature was a balmy 20 below zero. That was something that always struck me about Bob: although he was immersed in and committed to great ideas, he remained rooted in the practical, everyday world -his passion was in translating abstract notions into tangible realities and making those realities accessible for everyone. He set an inspiring example.


My heart goes out to you
Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays;
But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers…

-from Auden’s poem about the last days of W.B. Yeats.

Beckley Wooster, former intern at the Schumacher Center and former member of the Yale Student Environmental Coalition:

Bob impressed me by the skill in his hands, the knowledge in his brain, his lifestyle choices, and his activism. I appreciated his combination of firm principles beneath a gentle manner. He accepted me for who I was while inspiring me, vocally and by example, to examine my choices and reach for greater thoughts and deeds.

Ben Strauss, former intern at the Schumacher Center, former member of the Yale Student Environmental Coalition:

If there is one thing that defined Bob for me, it was peace. And yet under the same frame, with perpetual calmness and kindness, he sheltered an undimming urgency and will to make change in the world. He tracked the large-print world news to his last reading days. I know no other who has blended these streams so gracefully, and Bob will always remain a role model for me.

Tom Long, “A Rememberance of Robert Swann”, The Boston Globe (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 Schumacher Center 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.


Related Lectures

Community Forestry Associations
World Resources Trusteeship
Stirred by Necessity and Promise
Bob Swann Obituary
A New Peace