Jeff Ackerman: Mr. Swift, founder of Swift Communications, one for the ages |

Jeff Ackerman: Mr. Swift, founder of Swift Communications, one for the ages

Jeff Ackerman

Under a heading of, “they-don’t-make-them-like-that anymore,” Philip E. Swift died in Southern California recently at the age of 102.

That in itself is remarkable, as I sit here still 36 years away from 102 and feeling every bit of it.

But that’s not what made Philip E. Swift remarkable. He personified the characteristics of his generation, founded on the basic principle of doing the “right thing.” Most all of us know right from wrong and so when I would call to ask his advice, “Mr. Swift,” as I called him, would listen quietly as I rambled on and on and then would say, “Jeff. I think you should do the right thing. You know what that is, don’t you?”

When your boss asks you a question like that there is only one right answer.

I tried to explain to her that the bigger story was that her dogs could read the newspaper, but she hung up.

“Of course, I know right from wrong. I appreciate the talk.”

Mr. Swift was born in Missouri in 1917 and was raised on a farm in Kansas. His parents instilled a strong work ethic and thirst for knowledge. His mother Bessie was a school teacher who shared her passion for English, reading and music with her three sons. A foundation in her name (Bessie Minor Swift) continues to “contribute to an informed and active citizenry by supporting programs that promote literacy and educational enrichment” in the communities served by Swift Communications.

Grass Valley is one of those communities and that’s where I first met Mr. Swift.

It was 1984 and Mr. Swift’s newspaper company was almost 10 years old. The Union was one of a handful of small dailies and weeklies owned by Swift Newspapers, Inc. He also owned the Tahoe Daily Tribune and The News-Review in Roseburg, Oregon.

I was hired as a staff writer and would spend the next 32 years working for the Swift family.

Mr. Swift would leave the farm and go to college, as would his two brothers; Dean and Harry. After spending a couple of years teaching school in Kansas, Mr. Swift bought a weekly newspaper in Missouri. It was 1940 and he was just 23 years old.

Then World War II came along and Mr. Swift joined the Navy, telling his staff he would return when the war was ended. He got his Navy “wings” and went on to have a distinguished, four-year flying career.

Two years later Mr. Swift expanded his media company with the acquisition of three more weekly newspapers in Missouri. He grew them over the next seven years, selling in 1955 to join Scripps League of Newspapers, which owned several newspapers in the West.

I would leave Grass Valley in 1986 to become editor of the Tahoe Daily Tribune, located on the south shore of Lake Tahoe. Mr. Swift spent part of the year living across the lake in Incline Village. We’d become neighbors when I moved to Incline to publish the North Lake Tahoe Bonanza a couple of years later.

It probably won’t surprise some of you to know that my columns often drew lots of complaints. I think I’ve written more than 2,000 weekly columns over my career and maybe half of them have either required police protection or at least extra building security.

I don’t think Mr. Swift could go many places in Incline Village without someone complaining about me.

But he never said a word. He never flinched. I heard he would simply shake his head and say, “I know. I don’t know what to do about him, but I’m glad you are reading the paper.”

He did flinch once, though. It was April 1 and my newsroom thought it would be fun to play a little April Fool’s Day spoof on page one of the newspaper. Our photographer went across the street to the supermarket and found a plastic dinosaur. He stuck it in a bathtub and took a grainy black and white photo of it. It accompanied a story about a lake monster that was grabbing dogs that got too close to the shore.

My phone started ringing soon as I hit the office and didn’t stop all day. One woman screamed that her dogs had been traumatized by the story and wouldn’t leave the house. I tried to explain to her that the bigger story was that her dogs could read the newspaper, but she hung up.

Then Mr. Swift called.

“Hello, Jeff,” he began. “How are things today?”

“Great, Mr. Swift,” I replied. “Seems pretty busy.”

“Looks like you guys had a little fun with that story on page one,” he said, never raising his voice. “I’ll bet you won’t ever put another April 1 joke in our newspaper, will you?”

I knew this would be one of many career changing moments, so I said, “No way. I was just thinking the same thing, Mr. Swift. It was a terrible idea.”

“That’s good, Jeff. Just keep doing the right thing.”

Jeff Ackerman is former publisher of The Union. He may be reached at

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