Remembering Jean Horn Swanson: A Life of Service to Others 

By Carol Flynn 

Mother Teresa said, “The good you do today will often be forgotten by tomorrow. Do good anyway.” 

That statement exemplifies the life of Jean Swanson, a member of the Beverly/Morgan Park community for over 50 years, who passed away in July at the age of 83.  

Jean’s death didn’t make the national news, but that was never on her mind anyway.  

She was one of a vanishing breed of women from the “Silent Generation,” those born between 1928 and 1945, whose values included a strong work ethic, respect for others, resilience, and a sense of fairness. These women dedicated their lives to making things better for others through countless hours of volunteer service. Much of Jean’s work benefited our community.  

The daughter of the Lutheran campus minister for Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Jean Horn grew up valuing education, music, intelligent conversation, and service to others. Although she had a master’s degree in food and nutrition from Cornell University, she pursued employment as a lay associate in campus ministry.  

That brought her to Chicago, where she met Howard Swanson, a World War II veteran and electrical engineer whose true passion was as a classical violinist. They married and moved to Beverly/Morgan Park, and welcomed two daughters, Kristen and Ericka.  

The Swanson house became a “second home” for friends and neighbors, a welcoming spot for comfort and refuge.   

“Our house was just a super interesting place to be. Our mother opened up our house to others constantly; she had craft supplies and history books, she was always baking for people, we had home-baked cookies available all the time,” said Kristen Swanson Dimas. “Our father had chamber music quartets in our home on a weekly basis. And our mother played the guitar, piano, and violin, and would get our friends to sing along with her.” 

As a mother, Jean became involved in volunteer activities. She was a Girl Scouts leader, but her organization and advocacy skills really shone in her work for public school education initiatives. She became president of the Parent Teacher Associations (PTAs) for Clissold Elementary School and Morgan Park High School, and was elected to the Local School Council. She served as a member of the Beverly Area Planning Association (BAPA) Public Education Committee, formed to work on issues involving area elementary and high schools.  

“My mom believed that every child deserved the right to an excellent education,” said Kristen. “She was the perfect advocate for public education because she researched everything, then shared the information. This was before the internet, and our dining room was filled with boxes of paperwork and handouts for all the different meetings.”  

Jean’s path crossed with that of Gretchen McDowell, another mother in the community devoted to volunteering for education causes. Gretchen served as president and board member in local, Illinois and the national PTAs, and chaired the BAPA education committee. Jean and Gretchen were members of the same church, Bethlehem Evangelical Lutheran Church at 94th and Oakley Avenue.  

When Gretchen was legislative chair for the city-level PTA, Jean worked with her on legislative issues. Jean was a very active member of the BAPA Public Education Committee when Gretchen was chair.  

“We identified the needs of the local schools and what BAPA could do to help. We looked at budgets and the physical state of the school facilities,” said Gretchen, “but more importantly, we looked at strengthening the education of the students in the schools, and recognizing and celebrating the teachers.”   

Gretchen said that they were “squeaky wheels” about what their schools needed, and Jean was “a good squeaky wheel.”  

“Jean was unique. She was an extremely well-educated woman. She was never afraid to speak her mind and to have ideas. She was really good at writing letters. And if you asked her to do something, and she said she would do it, she did it,” said Gretchen. “And that volunteer who will say yes and then follow through doing what they said they would do is really gold.” 

When her husband’s job was eliminated through downsizing, Jean took a job she was well-qualified for, Coordinator of Parent and Community Outreach for Chicago Public Schools. She traveled throughout the city, promoting the interests of children and the involvement of parents and families in the school system. 

“She was fiercely protective of all children. If she saw someone in need, especially children, she would act on it. She just really believed so very strongly in giving back,” said Kristen. 

Kristen and Ericka Swanson are both mothers themselves now. Kristen, her husband Andreas Dimas, and their children and Ericka and her family live in Beverly/Morgan Park. Jean loved being a grandmother, which is no surprise.   

Kristen said that friends, neighbors, and others who knew their mother have reached out to them since her death. 

“So many people have said to us, ‘Your mom was there for me when I was going through something hard at home. I knew I could always come over to your house and get my homework done or have a warm meal.’ Others have said she made all the difference in the world for them,” said Kristen.  

This service to others is Jean Swanson’s legacy, as well as the positive outcomes of all the work these women did to improve the public schools.  

“People may not know that a certain benefit came from her, but it did,” said Kristin. “It was a result of all her hard work and determination and her willingness to just go ahead and devote herself one hundred percent.” 

The Silent Generation wasn’t really silent. They let their actions speak louder than words.   






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