President Swallow reflects on his first month at Carthage
By Mike Moore
Aug. 7, 2017
Intermittently popping in and out of their rooms, the summer residents of Henry Denhart Residence Hall might not have realized the unassuming, 40-something neighbor they passed in the hallway was Carthage’s new president.
President John R. Swallow happily shared the residence hall with research students, campus workers, and theatre campers.For the first month of his term,
During breaks in a predictably packed schedule, he would scan his Carthage ID to enter the building and return to an 800-square-foot, first-floor apartment. A whiteboard on the door bears the message, “Home is where Denhart is.”
Even before voting to hire President Swallow, the Board of Trustees had approved some overdue renovations to Trinity House, the traditional home of the president at the far north end of campus. With that off-limits for several months and a more spacious rental home unavailable until early August, he agreed to spend a few weeks in campus housing.
The spartan accommodations didn’t bother President Swallow. His wife, Cameron, stayed behind in Tennessee for a few weeks to tie up loose ends, and their two college-aged children had out-of-town commitments anyway.
Denhart Hall’s area coordinator (a position previously known as hall director) occupies that space during the academic year.
“I feel like a graduate student. It’s great,” President Swallow said. “I have some books. I have a bike. I have a few things to eat. I have a TV, but I don’t use it.”
In fact, the lack of household responsibilities evoked memories of two yearlong sabbaticals he took — to Israel and France — as a faculty member.
“What I remember about the living arrangement — and this was with my whole family — was that there was nothing to do for the house,” he said. “There’s no lawn to mow, no dog to walk, nothing that needed to be fixed.”
Since he took office July 1, there’s been no time to strap on a tool belt anyway. Not with Carthaginians to meet, 170 years of the institution’s culture to digest, and hot spots to explore in his new hometown.
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“This seems like a place that is willing to do something bold, not follow the herd of liberal arts colleges.
In my experience, there’s an enormous bias at liberal arts colleges to look over their shoulders
and not do something the others aren’t doing. But Carthage has done some things on its own.
It seems exciting, seems open.”
Boldness over boundaries
Before declaring a slate of priorities, President Swallow prefers to spend some time calibrating his understanding of the place. And listening.
What he heard in that first month gave him a glimpse of the College’s potential.
“This seems like a place that is willing to do something bold, not follow the herd of liberal arts colleges,” President Swallow said. “In my experience, there’s an enormous bias at liberal arts colleges to look over their shoulders and not do something the others aren’t doing. But Carthage has done some things on its own. It seems exciting, seems open.”
After all, why put artificial limits on education? From day one of his own schooling, that was a foreign concept.
“I was in an experimental kindergarten class where they tried an idea of letting students succeed at their own pace. That was a big idea in the ’70s,” he said. “We were all basically following the same pace, but, for whatever reason, I just kept going in the math books.”
Always a step ahead, in seventh grade, he’d bike over to the high school for a geometry class and then pedal back to rejoin his classmates. In high school, he spent much of his time at nearby Coker College.
“From the school administration’s point of view, I was a nuisance,” President Swallow said. “They didn’t like the fact that I was taking my own schedule.”
At 15, he enrolled at The University of the South, better-known as “Sewanee” for the Tennessee community in which it’s located. Lacking a baby face, he kept the secret from his new friends for two full months.
Sophomore year, he met Cameron, then a freshman. Both double-majored in mathematics and English.
“We were the only two at that time,” he said, “so I figured we had to get married.”
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‘A curious combination’
Meet President Swallow
Carthage College will hold several events this fall to introduce President Swallow to our alumni, parents, and friends of the College. All are welcome, and all events are free to attend. RSVP required.
See a list of upcoming events
Now 47, President Swallow takes office with easily transferrable experience as a faculty member, senior administrator, and trustee at three other small liberal arts institutions.
Besides his undergraduate alma mater, Sewanee, he has worked at Davidson (North Carolina) College and serves on the Board of Trustees at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia. The son of a truly complementary couple, he’s got that holistic mindset practically sewn into his DNA.
The new president describes his father, a retired biology professor, as rational and binary. His mother, who worked as a piano teacher, church organist, and drug/alcohol abuse counselor, leans on intuition and just the right dose of discipline.
“Those are my parents,” he said. “I feel like I’m a curious combination.”
Naturally for a guy with a Ph.D. in math from Yale University, there’s an analytical side. A popular columnist once chronicled his five-year quest to solve a sort of mathematical cold case.
More than numbers, President Swallow sees the field’s real value as studying systems: how things are organized, how they connect. Or at least how they should.
Equally smitten with literature, he has taught humanities courses for 14 years. To him, storytelling serves as a counterweight, reminding us that people stand at the heart of those systems.
Six years of piano lessons with his mother birthed a third passion: music. That instilled the discipline to strive for perfection and the vulnerability to accept imperfection.
President Swallow played trumpet in marching band and dabbled in drums enough to play B-52’s hit “Love Shack” in public, but singing has always been at the forefront. He’s performed with many ensembles, including an a cappella choir that wouldn’t consider any piece written after 1650.
So many sides meshing to form a whole person. That’s the holistic approach he believes liberal arts critics often misunderstand.
“I don’t think a bit of it isn’t important,” he said.
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Roots in the Midwest
series of events will allow students, employees, alumni, and other supporters to meet the man who will guide the College along that upward arc.Record enrollment, 30 years of operating surpluses, and $200 million in recent campus improvements all point to a time of unprecedented prosperity for Carthage. A
Born in Houston and raised in South Carolina, President Swallow is no stranger to this region. For a while, much of his extended family clustered in the Chicago area, and he remembers driving his father’s Volkswagen bus north to visit.
Now a more permanent Midwesterner, he quickly noticed the friendly vibe.
“People seem to really like it when you say hello,” he said. “I know that seems like a small thing, but it isn’t.”
Sometimes he’ll ride his new yellow Giant road bike into town for coffee. Finding the area unusually friendly to cyclists, President Swallow has suddenly made that his preferred form of exercise.
The Denhart kitchenette remained largely unused. Not much of a cook — “I’m pretty good at cereal,” he jokes — he grabbed meals wherever. Like the weekly Summer Undergraduate Research Experience lunch, where students’ presentations about their experiments left him gushing.
Cameron, a longtime high school teacher, recently rejoined her husband. A rented house near the Racine Zoo will serve as their base of operations until Trinity House is ready.
The couple’s two children will join them briefly. Bard, a rising senior at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, taught computer coding at a summer camp in the Twin Cities. Sophie, a second-year student at Middlebury College in Vermont, visited friends she made during a volunteer experience in Guatemala.
As they head back to their schools, President Swallow gets to welcome his first Carthage class. And maybe share some inside knowledge with those assigned to Denhart Hall.