By Carol Keocheckian ’81
Perhaps it was their Midwestern upbringing or the fact that their parents set an example of helping others. Maybe it was because they received assistance when they most needed it or because a faculty member took a special interest in career development.
Whatever the reasons, the lessons Jim and Sue Swenson absorbed while growing up in Superior, Wis., resulted in a successful multimillion-dollar business and a foundation that generously supports colleges and universities as well as many other nonprofit organizations.
The largess of the Swenson Family Foundation was introduced to CLU in 1997 with the initiation of the Swenson Scholars program, which provides 50 percent of tuition and fees to 16 recipients for four years. The foundation’s support later expanded to include the Swenson Summer Science Internships and most recently to the construction of the $8.5 million Swenson Center for the Social and Behavioral Sciences, which opened in the fall.
Although it is gratifying to the Swensons to see their name on the building, Jim said it’s “more gratifying to see kids get college degrees where we have helped. We want to give where we can see results.”
“Jim and Sue are genuinely interested in helping people get an excellent education, and their generosity has made a tremendous difference in the lives of so many Cal Lutheran students,” said President Chris Kimball.
A Helping Hand Remembered
As a young man, Jim personally experienced the challenges of paying for college. The eldest of five brothers, he worked in his father’s bakery to keep the family together after his mother died in 1955. Jim’s mother had always wanted him to go to college and left him a life insurance policy of $1,800 to assist with expenses. However, when Jim reached 18 (the age he could cash in the policy), things were difficult at home and his father needed the money.
Conflicted, Jim consulted a local banker as to whether to keep the insurance funds or give them to his father. The banker recommended signing the policy over to his father, but told Swenson that if he ever needed financial assistance to come to him for help. Jim remembered that offer when he was a college student needing to repay a loan, and sure enough, the banker lent Jim $900 from his own personal funds. Jim credits the banker and his remarkable gift with “planting the seeds” for the Swensons’ future generosity.
Jim graduated from University of Minnesota Duluth in1959 with a degree in chemistry while his high school sweetheart, Susan Locken, completed her teaching certificate at University of Wisconsin Superior. Following their marriage in 1959, Jim completed military service with the National Guard and began a job at Honeywell Research Center in Minnesota where he developed new computer memories.
“Jim and Sue are genuinely interested in helping people get an excellent education, and their generosity has made a tremendous difference in the lives of so many Cal Lutheran students.” ~ President Chris Kimball
After working for several large corporations, including Univac where he learned how to make circuit boards, Jim was recruited to Lockheed Electronics in California in 1968 by a former employer and mentor.
“Every time we’d have a snow storm in Minneapolis, he would call and ask if I was ready to come to California yet,” Jim laughingly recalled.
A Business of His Own
In 1978, Jim tired of the corporate structure and launched his own company with $15,000 and four employees. Located in Anaheim, Calif., the start-up company named Details Inc. created the “inner layer details” for printed circuit boards. It became the fastest, quick-turn-around engineering prototype circuit board shop in the United States.
One of the secrets of Details’ success was its excellent customer service. Jim had found that designers in large firms had stopped checking their work.
“We would spot deficiencies in their designs and fix them quickly,” he explained.
Details Inc. became known for meeting deadlines and doing things right. Their client list included Compaq, IBM, Apple and Motorola. “We made boards for nearly every computer company in the country,” Jim said. He thanks his father and father-in-law, both small businessmen, for teaching him the importance of customer service.
While Jim was building his business, Sue returned to college and earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology at Cal State Fullerton. She worked for many years as a patient representative in acute and rehab hospitals.
In 1996, Details Inc. was sold, giving the Swensons more time to pursue other interests.
The Swensons’ generosity extended to capital giving this year making possible the 33,000-square-foot center for the social and behavioral sciences located on the site of the former tennis courts.
CLU’s first LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) building, it contains 43 faculty offices, nine state-of-the-art classrooms, two computer labs, a psychology lab and a conference room. The new structure has enabled professors to finally move out of the converted chicken coops that have been in use since classes began in 1961.
Psychology professor Steve Kissinger, who had an office in a converted chicken coop for 19 years, described the new building as open and airy.
“I served as the Social Science rep on the construction committee, and at the end of each meeting we took a walk-through tour of Swenson. It was difficult to return to my office in G Building. It was so dark and dingy in comparison.”
The new center houses several departments and gives faculty the opportunity to interact with more colleagues than in the past, Kissinger observed. He also thinks the new classrooms have a big impact on students.
“The classrooms are large, bright and modern. They are all equipped with the latest technology, especially the computer labs.”
“With Jim’s commitment to science and technology, it is very fitting for our first ‘green’ building to bear the Swenson name,” added Kimball. “We are all proud of this new and long-awaited academic facility.”
Jim Swenson gives more than financial resources to CLU. A member of the Board of Regents since 1998, he encourages his fellow board members to think outside the box when coming up with new ways to better serve students.
Besides CLU and their alma maters, the Swenson Family Foundation supports the Ocean Institute of Dana Point, Orange County Performing Arts (Children’s Programming) and Children’s Hospital of Orange County where they established the Swenson Assistance Endowment for Families.
When asked why they are so generous, Jim talks about his mother. “She was very giving,” he said, explaining that she always made soup and shared it with a poor man that scavenged in their neighborhood.
“Why did you have that dirty man in,” young Jim would ask his mother. “We have plenty. We can share,” was her response.
“That’s the Midwestern way,” Sue clarified. “That’s just what people did.”