Lifelong ties lead to long-term impact

Photo courtesy of Peggy Swartz.
Jerry Swartz holds a red-tailed hawk in 1977.

By Karen J. Tomasik

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Photo courtesy of Peggy Swartz.
Peggy Swartz cooks food next to her and Jerry鈥檚 car about 30 miles north of Dawson Creek while on the couple鈥檚 honeymoon trip, moving to 性十八.cc in 1958.

From a young age, Leslie Gerard Swartz, 鈥淛erry鈥 to most who knew him, liked the outdoors, animals, birds and plants. 

鈥淐hicago has a very large area set aside as forests and he spent a lot of time in those woods ever since he was very young,鈥 explained Peggy Swartz, who met Jerry when they were both graduate students at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. 

Although Jerry and Peggy pursued studies in different disciplines, they both shared a love of being out in nature. They married on Jerry鈥檚 birthday in 1958 and drove to 性十八.cc on their honeymoon.

鈥淗e never really had much doubt about what he wanted to do for a career,鈥 said Sue Mitchell 鈥91, the Swartz鈥檚 oldest child. 鈥淗e went through [school], got his Ph.D., got a job at the university and that was it. I used to kind of envy him because he always knew what he wanted to do.鈥 

Peggy attributed the start of their permanent stay in 性十八.cc to inertia.

鈥淲e liked 性十八.cc. The people here were good and we felt kind of at home here,鈥 Peggy explained. 鈥淛erry was interested in the countryside and the possibilities and the biology, and for me, there was an interest in music also that was attractive. We stayed, except for a couple of years when we did sabbaticals.鈥

Inspiring others to pursue lifelong learning was something Jerry and Peggy shared with their immediate and extended family members. Before Jerry died in November 2023, they established the Gerard and Peggy Swartz Biology Endowed Scholarship, which provides financial assistance to students pursuing a bachelor鈥檚 or graduate degree from the UAF Department of Biology and Wildlife.

The Swartz鈥檚 early years were full as they worked together to build an A-frame house on Yankovich Road where they lived until 2021. They had four children: Sue, twin boys Roger and David born three years later, and Judy, who was born in 1968.

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Photos courtesy of Peggy Swartz.
Jerry works on the A-frame home鈥檚 basement under construction in the summer of 1962.
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Peggy peels logs for the house on Yankovich Road during the summer of 1962.
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An early photo of the A-frame house the Swartzes built on Yankovich Road.

A home for learning

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Photo courtesy of Peggy Swartz.
Jerry Swartz works in a lab in the Bunnell Building at UAF.

Anyone who has been around a young child knows how inquisitive they can be, and with four children in a household, Jerry and Peggy fielded many questions over the years. 

鈥淲hen we were growing up, we would ask Dad 鈥榃hat does this word mean鈥 or 鈥楬ow do you spell it鈥 and he鈥檇 say 鈥楲ook it up,鈥 and he鈥檇 pull out a dictionary and have us look it up,鈥 Sue recalled. 鈥淗e taught us how to find out for ourselves.鈥 

Jerry鈥檚 students would run into one of the Swartz children and, after learning who they were, would often comment on how Jerry would grade on English because he said scientists should know how to write.

While Jerry鈥檚 focus was on biology and teaching, Peggy performed and taught music. She was one of the founders of the Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra and played in the symphony and in the Arctic Chamber Orchestra for decades.

鈥淚 was one of the first ones in the fledgling symphony and helped found the youth symphony and the North Star Strings,鈥 said Peggy, who later started the Suzuki program for children in Fairbanks and taught private lessons for years.

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Photo courtesy of Peggy Swartz.
Peggy Swartz plays the cello.

The A-frame on Yankovich would be filled with much more than just young musicians and the Swartz children; it was also home to a variety of pets.

鈥淲e would gather any kind of animals, and Dad encouraged and helped us,鈥 Sue said. 鈥淎ny kind of animal that we came across that we wanted to bring home and keep as a pet was fair game. 

鈥淲e had rats and guinea pigs and gerbils and of course dogs. I had a horse, my sister had a horse, and we had a couple of small alligators, snakes 鈥 just pretty much anything, even water beetles, frogs and stuff we would go catch at Smith Lake near the university.鈥 

One family pet preferred family life on its own terms. 

鈥淲e had a flying squirrel for a while that started as a pet and quickly got loose and lived inside the house,鈥 Sue explained. 鈥淚n the evenings after dark, it would glide down into the living room and sometimes land on somebody鈥檚 shoulder. Mom would leave food out on the counter for it, and it would come drink out of the dripping faucet.鈥 

As the Swartz children grew up, they got to know some of Jerry鈥檚 graduate students, even keeping in touch with them well after they graduated and moved on to their own careers. 

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Photo courtesy of Peggy Swartz.
Puuka, the Swartz鈥檚 first dog after arriving in 性十八.cc, stands on her doghouse with Sue (in front) and younger brother Dave during the winter of 1967.
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Photo courtesy of Peggy Swartz.
Peggy Swartz pauses from reading a book with family dog Holly on her lap and Snapdragon on her shoulder. Snapdragon was a kestrel that Jerry and Sue raised and trained one summer and that lived mostly in the house.

An extended family

鈥淩on [Clarke 鈥84] said we were like his family,鈥 explained Sue. 鈥淒ad involved his grad students in our lives. They came for holidays. Lived next door in some cases. They were a very integral part, not just at school, but in our lives. And sometimes they pulled pranks on him and us. 

鈥淥ne day I remember a couple of the grad students came over and they had this big trash can. They said, 鈥楾his is a pet for you kids. It鈥檚 not for Jerry. It鈥檚 just for you kids; it belongs to you, and you can decide what to do with it. Jerry doesn鈥檛 have anything to say about this.鈥 We said 鈥極h good, good, great, great, great,鈥 we were so excited. They opened the lid and there鈥檚 a live porcupine in there! We agreed that perhaps we could let that one go.鈥 

Jerry specifically wanted to teach freshman biology because he wanted to get students early, but he also spent a lot of time working with various graduate students over the years. For Clarke, Jerry made the difference in his ability to complete his master鈥檚 degree.

鈥淚 planned to study merlins, a small species of falcon, for my research,鈥 Clarke explained. 鈥淚 went to go play a pickup sandlot football game outside the Patty Center and I injured my knee. So here I was with an ankle-to-hip cast for nine weeks as field season was starting. 

鈥淎s luck would have it, Steve MacLean had a field ecology class going on at that time, and the class was getting attacked by a sharp-shinned hawk. Jerry had me come out with him to search the field for the nest the hawk was protecting, and we built a blind. 

鈥淚 was able to watch the brood get raised, and I was able to use that for my master鈥檚 thesis,鈥 Clarke said. 鈥淭hat was just my first summer of research, but I met my best friend Bill Tilton, who taught me even more about how to find those nests, and I got three more field seasons in. Bill was a UAF art student, but also a very talented naturalist and a falconer.鈥 

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Photo courtesy of Peggy Swartz.
Jerry Swartz, left, and Ron Clarke each hold a red-tailed hawk, while Fairbanks wildlife artist Randall Compton, right, holds a female goshawk during a field outing in 1977.

Clarke, Tilton and Alan Springer 鈥74, 鈥88 were part of a group of graduate students who would go to the Swartz home for Thanksgiving every year.

鈥淢om would bake the biggest turkey she could find; they were often close to 40 pounds,鈥 Sue said. 鈥淪he would feed all these grad students of Dad鈥檚 and they would compete to see who could eat the most.鈥 

鈥淭hey had this great big door they put up on sawhorses and put a tablecloth over it,鈥 Clarke explained. 鈥淭hat makeshift table could seat 14 people.鈥 

The holiday meals led to some lasting connections for the Swartz family. 

鈥淭here were a bunch of really nice students 鈥 we really enjoyed knowing them,鈥 said Peggy. 鈥淥f course, they often couldn鈥檛 go home for Thanksgiving, especially in the earlier days when flying wasn鈥檛 quite as easy to do. So we would invite them to come over and have Thanksgiving, and they kind of became parts of the family. Many of them I鈥檓 still in touch with today.鈥 

鈥淎t my wedding, Ron Clarke, Alan Springer and Bill Tilton had been out hunting with their falcon that day and they came to the reception at Raven Hall out in Goldstream Valley with the tiercel gyrfalcon and a dead white-fronted goose,鈥 Sue explained. 鈥淭hey visited with Dad and showed it to him because they were so proud that their bird had brought down this goose, which is a really big prey for the smaller male bird. So there鈥檚 a picture of my dad sitting there wearing a tuxedo with a gyrfalcon on one hand and the goose in his other hand.鈥 

Birds bring family together

Working with birds of prey was a passion of Jerry鈥檚, so much so that a significant study of his centered on successfully raising peregrine falcons in captivity. 

鈥淭his was when peregrines were endangered because of DDT. They would absorb it into their tissues and it would build up,鈥 Sue explained. 鈥淥ne of the effects was that the eggshells would get thin and the parents would break the eggs just by sitting on them. He was trying to find ways to breed them in captivity for release in the wild to help boost the population.

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Photo courtesy of Peggy Swartz.
Snapdragon, Jerry and Sue's kestrel, was the only bird allowed to fly inside the house.

鈥淚 think somebody at Cornell was the first, but Dad, if I鈥檓 not mistaken, was the second one to ever succeed in doing that.鈥 

Jerry built an outbuilding for the peregrines in what the family called the hawk house. 

鈥淗e had a baby monitor so that he could listen to what was going on when we were in the house; you could hear what was going on out in the hawk house,鈥 Sue said. 鈥淪ometimes he鈥檇 tell us all 鈥楽top, be quiet鈥 so he could listen to the calls and what鈥檚 going on.鈥 

Sue recalled that Jerry would sometimes run out to the hawk house and peer through a little one-way glass window to observe the birds if things sounded promising. His work was to get the amount of light and conditions right so the falcons would breed, and he could then take the eggs and put them in incubators to raise them. 

鈥淲hen they hatched, he had a peregrine puppet he had made, so that he could feed them,鈥 Sue said. 鈥淭he chicks would imprint on what they saw, and he didn鈥檛 want them to imprint on humans; he wanted them to imprint on peregrines, so he made this very realistic peregrine puppet with an operable beak so he could feed little bits of meat to the babies with the puppet. 

鈥淗e really took very good care of those birds and was always trying to find food for them. We would come to a screeching halt on the road if we saw a fresh roadkill, and he would pick it up and throw it in the back of the VW bug. He raised Japanese quail in the garage to feed the falcons. 

鈥淗e did chickens too, so for at least two or three years he would get about 900 baby chicks in the spring, and he would put them in my horse barn over the summer. The horse had to go out in the corral for the summer, and the chicks took over. 

鈥淗e often got things from trappers; we鈥檇 come home and there鈥檇 be a skinned wolverine on the kitchen counter thawing,鈥 Sue explained. 鈥淚t was an interesting way to grow up, and I used to have to warn my friends if they were gonna come over and visit that there might be something weird on the kitchen counter. He鈥檇 put this stuff in the chest freezer next to the berries and the moose meat or the casseroles that Mom had made. Dad would leave some whole animal on the kitchen counter to thaw because you can鈥檛 microwave it to thaw it for peregrines. They don鈥檛 like cooked meat. So I might bring my friends home from school and there鈥檇 be a dead animal lying on the kitchen counter. This was normal to us, but we had to remember to warn new friends not to freak out. 

鈥淓very now and then he鈥檇 forget to take something out of the freezer in time so he would put it in the oven on low to thaw it a little faster,鈥 Sue said. 鈥淭here was a memorable incident when I decided to make cookies and turned the oven on preheat without checking inside. Nobody was happy that day. It was a baked rat. Mom wasn鈥檛 happy. Dad wasn鈥檛 happy. And I wasn鈥檛 happy.鈥 

From falcons to aviation

Their son Dave, wanted to become a pilot, partly inspired by the flight of the falcons his Dad raised. Through Dave, Jerry became interested in aviation.

鈥淲e kids were mostly grown when Dad took up flying. He and Mom flew all over the Lower 48 a total of 12 times,鈥 Sue explained. 鈥淥nce they went out to Chicago and picked up my grandfather, Dad鈥檚 father, and flew him to Georgia to visit Dave there and then flew him back.

鈥淚 used to joke that some people retire, and they get a Winnebago, but my parents got a Cessna,鈥 Sue said with a laugh. 鈥淭hey would just land someplace and pull out a tent and sleep beside the runway, or else somebody would offer them a place to stay, or they鈥檇 catch a ride to town and stay at a hotel. They had a good time doing that.

After his retirement, Jerry bought a kit to build an RV9A, an experimental airplane that carries two people. Over about a decade, he built the kit and finally flew it at the age of 89. 

鈥淢y brother still flies regularly; he still has the plane that Dad built,鈥 Sue added. 鈥淗is daughter, just this summer, soloed in that plane, so she鈥檚 learning to fly using that plane.鈥 

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Photo courtesy of Peggy Swartz.
Jerry Swartz stands with his daughter Judy and son Dave in front of a Cessna 150, the first plane Jerry bought. It was later replaced with a Cessna 172, whose engine Jerry overhauled.

As parents, Jerry and Peggy鈥檚 interests likely influenced their kids. 

鈥淚 was the black sheep who didn鈥檛 learn how to fly and didn鈥檛 learn music,鈥 Sue said. 鈥淢om tried to teach me for a while, but it didn鈥檛 work. My sister Judy still plays; she plays in the Mat-Su Orchestra and still enjoys it. 

鈥淸Dad鈥檚] love of language might have influenced me going into my profession, that interest in language. Respect for language,鈥 Sue explained. 鈥淚 was involved with communication and writing and publications for my whole career, and I had a degree in English from the University of Hawaii. And I鈥檝e always also been interested in the natural world and especially animals. I enjoy seeing wild animals when I鈥檓 traveling. That鈥檚 what I go to do; see the creatures and nature.鈥 

Learning of and making an impact

One former student, Ron Fayer 鈥62, was inspired to establish a scholarship in Jerry鈥檚 honor. Fayer attended the 2023 Nanook Rendezvous reunion and, while there, inquired about Jerry with UAF development team member Judy Dellinger 鈥93.

Dellinger reached out to Jerry for permission to share his contact information. When the two men met, Fayer recounted how memories of his professor had energized him to create a UAF scholarship.

That influenced Jerry and Peggy to do the same. They talked to Dellinger about a $30,000 gift to establish the Gerard and Peggy Swartz Biology Endowed Scholarship. After Jerry moved into an assisted living facility, they decided to increase the gift to $100,000.

鈥淲e wanted to put some money in a place where it would do some good,鈥 Peggy said, 鈥渁nd both of us of course are very much interested in education and feel the future of the world is in the children and young people.鈥

Jerry passed away on Thanksgiving.

As Jerry spent his final time with family, he was visited by several graduate students and friends from various locations, including North Pole, Chickaloon and Seattle. 

鈥淲hen Ron [Clarke] drove up from Chickaloon and asked Dad if there was anything he wanted in his final days or weeks, Dad said 鈥榃ell, I鈥檇 really like to have a peregrine on my arm again,鈥欌 Sue said, 鈥渁nd Mom kinda shook her head and said 鈥楴o, that鈥檚 not gonna happen.鈥 When I saw Ron over lunch later, I said 鈥榊ou should totally do that.鈥

鈥淪o, a few days later Bill Tilton brought a peregrine into the assisted living in the evening, and we have pictures of it sitting on Dad鈥檚 arm in the bed,鈥 Sue said. 鈥淭he owner of the assisted living thought it was really cool because she got to touch a peregrine, and she never would have had that chance otherwise.鈥