To say that family is important to Don and Lois Swanson would be an understatement. Their walls tell a story of close family bonds throughout the years with pictures of their three children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. Some photos are even carefully labeled with the subjects name written on sticky notes; making it easier for curious newcomers like myself to keep track of who is who in the growing Swanson clan.
Out of all the photos displayed on the Swanson’s wall of memories, it’s one black and white picture in particular that quietly takes center stage. It’s a picture of two 18 year old kids sharing a root beer from a couple of straws, locked in a Rockwell-esque moment captured in time over 70 years ago. It’s the photo that, you could say, started them all.
“That was the very moment we met.” Lois tells me. “That is my all- time favorite picture. That was at an event put on by the Wesley Club.”
Having both grown up in a small town in South Dakota, Don and Lois met while both were attending South Dakota State College where they were both active in the 4-H club. And it was by fate that the two would get together.
Don met Lois through a mutual friend when one day she decided to bring him along to one of many social events hosted by the college’s Student Union. “He sat across from me and we just meshed. We just knew…” Lois says. “I’m so glad she brought Don that night. We would never have met otherwise.”
“I asked her to dance…and she was a good dancer.” Don recalls. “So we started going steady. And soon after we were engaged….We got married when I was working for the Navy. I was working on a destroyer as a radio technician at the time. And when the destroyer stopped in Boston, that’s when we decided to get married.”
“It was a different time back then.” Lois informs me. “We went wherever our boyfriends or husbands were. That’s how things were done. So when his ship was stopped in Boston my sister drove me to the east coast so we could get married. And while we were there my sister met a man who she would end up marrying.”
Growing up on a cattle ranch in South Dakota, Don spent most of his youth on horseback, herding the 400 plus head of cattle his family owned. While the wide open space of the ranch might seem freeing to some, Don felt he wanted something bigger in his life and it was during a trip back home while still in college that Don made his decision to leave the ranch to pursue his interest in physics – a decision that not only took him around the world but also into the world of top secret military projects and into the company of historical figures.
“When I worked for General Dynamics that’s when I met Wernher Von Braun. He called me ‘Donnie’ and I called him ‘Professor’. I knew enough German from a few courses I took that I was able to act as the go-between for General Dynamics and Von Braun. We were pretty close.”
“Everyone at General Dynamics were nice people. I enjoyed hosting dinners and get-togethers at our house. We had a great time playing ping-pong….I beat everybody” Lois shared with a smile.
While Don spent most of his professional life steeped in secrecy, Lois happily worked out of the home, raising children and entertaining, while still managing time to practice her ping- pong serve. For a brief period in her life she worked as a High School home economics teacher where she worked with teens, educating them on the complicated details of running a home.
“I loved working with the kids. There’s no better way to influence children than by just being a good example. Nothing replaces that.”
Don and Lois have spent over 70 years of their lives together. The depth of their experiences runs deeper than an afternoon chat can reach. But you can tell by watching them interact that their journey together in this life has only tempered a bond they shared years ago that night at the Wesley Club.
“Lois is the best blessing in my life…She expresses her love so well.”
“We’ve had a lot of good years together. No complaints…I know I married the right person.”
Lois looks over to Don. Between them on the wall is the photo taken that night 70 plus years ago, a photo of two 18 year old kids, unaware that they are about to embark on an adventure together. What started as a shared root beer would evolve into a life, shared together.
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