• Richard Swenson
  • Richard Swenson
  • Richard Swenson
  • Richard Swenson
  • Richard Swenson
  • Richard Swenson
  • Richard Swenson
  • Richard Swenson
  • Richard Swenson

Community mourns passing of Richard Swensen, former dean and professor emeritus


January 15, 2019 - Beloved and well-respected member of the UW-River Falls community Chemistry Professor Emeritus Richard “Dick” Swensen, who also served as chair of the Chemistry Department from 1967 to 1969 and as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences from 1969 to 1988, died Jan. 10. Swensen, who retired from UW-River Falls in 1993, left behind a legacy of integrity, academic contributions and visionary leadership, as well as a lasting legacy of generosity and service.

Swensen first joined the faculty of what was then Wisconsin State College-River Falls in 1955, and after a brief hiatus to finish his doctorate, returned to its ranks in 1961. In addition to his roles in administration, he served two terms as chair of the University Faculty Council, the precursor to the present Faculty Senate. He was named as UWRF Distinguished Professor by the Johnson Foundation and was chosen Distinguished Teacher of the Year in 1970.

“Dr. Dick Swensen was an outstanding educator and campus leader who has made an uncommon and lasting impact on UW-River Falls,” Chancellor Dean Van Galen said. “In particular, his visionary leadership in the area of international partnerships impacted countless students and faculty. One part of Dr. Swensen’s great legacy at UWRF is reflected in how today’s university has remained committed to global education. On a personal level, Mary [Van Galen] and I have had the extraordinary opportunity to build a friendship with Dick and his wife, Grace, over the past ten years. We will remember Dick as a kind, gracious and generous man who deeply understood the value of education.”

Swensen’s passion for education extended well beyond the classroom and the city of River Falls. As dean, he instituted faculty exchanges both in Europe and the Pacific Rim and brought numerous internationally recognized individuals and groups to the campus.

Upon learning of Swensen’s passing, long-time colleague and friend, UWRF Economics Professor Emeritus and 1974 UWRF Distinguished Teacher Charles Kao reflected on their relationship of more than 50 years. 

“I was saddened to learn of the passing of our beloved Dean Swensen. I have known Dr. Richard Swensen for more than half a century, since joining the faculty in 1964. It is my personal fortune to have received so much advice and encouragement from Dick as the dean of our college and as a lifelong friend. When considering Dick as a role model, it becomes clear he is someone that one can admire but who is difficult to emulate,” Kao said. 

Kao, who currently leads the Commonwealth Publishing Company in Taiwan and who taught at UWRF from 1964-98, also serving as chair of the Economics Department from 1971-80, describes what he believes are some of Swensen’s main characteristics.

“…integrity, abundant energy, visionary leadership, as well as being a passionate, outstanding teacher, an international ambassador with global knowledge and a proud parent with his wife Grace, who raised talented children, all of whom have positively impacted our society,” Kao said. “All of us, particularly the international community, will always remember his wisdom and enthusiasm.”

The Swensen family traveled the world often, but it was the River Falls community they loved. The Swensens supported and participated in many community activities and thought highly of the exceptional education the university provided. Grace completed her degree from UW-River Falls in 1964 and all six of their children graduated from UWRF. Two of them, David and Stephen, went on to earn the Distinguished Alumnus Award. 

While UW-River Falls educated his family, Swensen educated generations of students who would also go on to find success. Former students recall that it didn’t take long for Swensen to build relationships in the classroom. 

“He knew everyone’s name by the second day,” said 1960 graduate and UWRF Physics Professor Emeritus Curt Larson. 

Captain Dan Brandenstein, '65, and 1983 UWRF Distinguished Alumnus, credits Swensen’s inspiration during his freshman chemistry class as a major contributor to his successes at NASA, both as an astronaut and space shuttle commander.

“It all started in that class where he encouraged us to work hard and dream big,” Brandenstein said.

It wasn’t just mentorship of students that distinguished Swensen. UWRF Speech Communications Professor Emerita Suzanne Hagen shared fond memories and appreciation for his approach as an administrator which put even new faculty at ease.

“’Mentor’ is the first word I think of when reflecting on Dick Swensen’s well-lived life,” Hagen said.

Hagen also remarked on how well Swensen knew the faculty and staff in the college he led, both the challenges they faced and the successes they accomplished. 

“Only as time passed did I fully appreciate how he subtly supported, encouraged and developed our capacities as teachers, administrators and colleagues,” said Hagen. “His mentorship was a gift – to UWRF and its people.”

UWRF Music Professor Emerita Lillian Tan also remembers Swensen as someone who “inspired you to do your very best and he truly appreciated faculty who went above and beyond the classroom for their students.”

On the UWRF campus even current students who never met Swensen may know him as the inspiration for the sundial attached to the South wall of the Kleinpell Fine Arts building. 

Physics Professor Emeritus John Shepherd recalls his partnership with Swensen to build the unique sculpture. 

“The sundial meant a lot to him and he was committed to seeing the project through despite numerous hurdles. Dick was tickled when it was complete and was proud to explain how it works whenever he had the opportunity.” Shepherd said. Fittingly, the sundial represents all the fields in which Swensen was keenly interested: science, history, art and multiculturalism.

Also a legacy serving current UWRF students is the scholarship which was created at the UW-River Falls Foundation in 1988 by colleagues, family and friends as a tribute for the 19-plus years Swensen served as dean. The Richard and Grace Swensen Endowed Scholarship continues today to support undergraduates at UWRF, students with whom Swensen always enjoyed conversing at UWRF’s annual scholarship recognition events.

At UW-River Falls and beyond Swensen will be remembered as a gracious and generous man who deeply understood the value of education, international partnership and kindness alike.

The family has requested memorials be given to the Richard and Grace Swensen Scholarship at the UWRF Foundation, the Lutheran World Relief Fund, and the St. Anthony Park Lutheran Church in St. Paul, Minn. A Memorial Service will be held at St. Anthony Park Lutheran Church in St. Paul on Saturday, Feb. 2, at 2 p.m.

If you would like to share a memory or statement about the impact of Swensen on your life, please email With your permission, we will share your statements with the family and publish them along with this article in the UWRF Newsroom.


Reflections about Professor Swensen


"As a college student and roommate to son-in-law Bob, (Carolyn) I had the privilege of being invited to dinner with Dr. and Mrs. Swensen, and five other floor mates from Hathorn Hall. 

I recall a wonderful, pleasant dinner. The most amazing part was how Dr. Swensen made me feel like I was such an important guest at his home. The conversation was all directed at us, illustrating how we were the most important guests.  He knew each of our names and something about each of us. I remember leaving that evening, bursting with confidence, positivity and feeling like I was someone very special. To this day, I remember the event clearly!

Thirty years later I had the opportunity to break bread with Dr. Swensen, Mrs. Swensen, and Bob and Carolyn Popp again. The wisdom and grace they shared at that dinner was equally phenomenal. I left saddened knowing this would be my last interaction with this great man but feeling fortunate that, in a very short time, I had reaped the benefits of his wisdom again.

Today when my children bring guests to our table, I always remember how one evening spent with Dr. Swensen made a difference in my life. I can never replicate his generosity, wisdom or caring but hope that each child leaves my house feeling like I did that evening long ago."

John Mackenroth
UWRF Class of 1988

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