By Mark Wineka
SALISBURY — The grace, warmth and charm of Elinor Swaim always combined to hide a tenacity behind this trailblazer.
Swaim could get things done.
“She was an iron fist in a velvet glove,” said her daughter, the Rev. Moffett Churn of Raleigh. “She was definitely on a mission all the time and was pretty determined.
“Yet that wasn’t what you saw. You didn’t see someone pushing or hurtling their way through life. You always felt she was getting there by being so good at relationships and listening to people.”
Elinor Henderson Swaim, 92, died at her Richmond Road home Tuesday. She never held public office but, in a way, the public was her office.
She might best be remembered for her local, state and national work on behalf of public libraries and literacy. Her travels as a presidential appointee on the U.S. National Commission on Libraries and Information Science took her across the country and across the Atlantic Ocean.
Swaim chaired both the N.C. State Library and the Rowan Public Library boards. For the Rowan library, her tireless leadership led to the first successful passing of a bond referendum in Rowan County in 25 years, and she quickly followed that up with her push for an East Rowan library branch.
In the span of three years, Salisbury’s main library expanded from 10,000 to 47,000 square feet and the new East Rowan branch came on line.
“I cannot emphasize enough how much Elinor was responsible for making that happen,” former Rowan Public Library Director Phil Barton said Thursday. “It took a leader, and she stepped up.”
But Swaim also left lasting impressions through her work for the Republican Party, the N.C. and Salisbury-Rowan symphonies, the N.C. Arts Council, the Presbyterian Church and, in her early days, as a health educator.
In 1945, while her husband of 70 years, Wilborn “Bill” Swaim, was off at war, she shared the program platform with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt during a National Planned Parenthood Association meeting in New York.
With every initiative she became involved in, Swaim took leadership roles and often opened new doors for women. She was the first woman trustee for Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Va., and vice chairman of the N.C. Republican Party in the 1980s. At her home church in Salisbury, First Presbyterian, she was one of the first two women elected as an elder.
“She was a woman who was ready to do things in the community, her church or wherever she was needed,” longtime Salisbury friend Mary Messinger said.
Swaim carried an immense curiosity about other people and sometimes exasperated her family with the long conversations in which she became involved.
Swaim’s smart sense of humor also was constantly on display.
“She got such a kick out of things,” Churn said. “I’ve never laughed with anyone the way I laughed with my mom.”
Partly from her upbringing and seeing her mother as a pioneer, Churn became the first woman ordained in the Concord Presbytery in the 1970s.
“It never occurred to me how unusual that was,” Churn said, mainly because of the role model her mother had been.
Swaim’s political accomplishments, even as a non-officeholder, were many. She served as chaplain for the National Federation of Republican Women and was N.C. chairwoman for the group. She managed N.C. Senate campaigns for friend Phil Kirk and helped her husband become a county commissioner.
For decades she served as a delegate to local, state and national GOP conventions.
In a 1987 interview with the Post, Swaim said she loved politics and held respect for people in it.
“I like the people who work in politics because they’re people who believe that what they do counts, that they can change things,” she said. “As a consequence, they do change things.”
Almost immediately after assuming the chairmanship of Rowan Public Library, Swaim told Director Phil Barton she wasn’t there only to keep the seat warm.
“I want to do something while I’m on this board,” Swaim said.
“Boy, do I have a challenge for you,” Barton answered.
Barton, Swaim and Friends of the Library started in on expansion plans for the headquarters in Salisbury. Swaim’s hands were on all the plans, the hiring of a nationally recognized consultant and the decision to ask voters to approve a bond referendum.
She helped put together a community group of movers and shakers to promote the bond, but nobody outside of library circles thought it had a chance of passing.
“We were convinced it could,” Barton recalled. “Elinor made that happen.”
Leading to the vote, Swaim gave some 40 programs about the library’s needs in all corners of the county.
Barton said Swaim always saw public libraries as an essential community service. “She fully understood and appreciated the connection libraries had with the quality of life in a community,” Barton said. “She really grasped that. I think that was a driving force for her.”
On the national level, Swaim became a champion for the placement of public libraries on Indian reservations.
A Burlington native, Swaim met her husband, Bill, while he was town clerk in Chapel Hill. She always enjoyed saying that she was willing to switch political parties — she had grown up in a family of Democrats — if Bill Swaim was willing to become a Presbyterian.
After World War II, during which the young couple endured a long separation, the Swaims moved to Randolph County, where Bill first owned a small mill, then worked for a large hosiery mill.
They brought their family to Salisbury in 1962 after Bill took over the Carolina Maid dress factory in Granite Quarry.
“There were so many things, over the years, she was involved in,” son David Swaim of Salisbury said. “… She was always interested in other people and never took herself too seriously.”
Whenever she returned from her many library or political trips, his mother shared stories that centered on the people she had met or worked with, David Swaim said.
Churn said her mother believed if everyone would take time to hear someone else’s story, “it would solve a lot of problems, and there wouldn’t be any insurmountable problems.”
Barton said a tiger lived beneath Swaim’s meek, Southern lady persona, “and I can’t say just how much fun it was working with her.”
After Barton’s retirement, Swaim encouraged him to stay active in the state library directors association. He took her advice and was instrumental in having an annual award for public service to libraries named in her honor.
“One of the blessings in my life,” Barton said, “was Elinor Swaim.”
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.
By Mark Wineka