Gene and Harriett Swagers’ names pervade many circles in Peoria—from the area’s architectural and music scenes to numerous works of public art. Ever modest, they’d prefer anonymity for their contributions, but between the two, their reach has been global in measure.
Both come from humble beginnings, and prior to marrying in 1980, they had already dedicated their lives to serving others. Gene, co-founder of Phillips Swager Associates (PSA)—the Peoria-based architectural firm, now part of Dewberry—has committed himself to a dozen boards—always willing to “help where he could.” Harriett, a musician since childhood, dedicated many years to the Peoria Symphony Orchestra, Peoria Opera, Junior League of Peoria and Girl Scouts of Central Illinois. Together, the couple is something of an unstoppable force, having been involved with a list of organizations seemingly longer than their own lives.
At 89 and 93 respectively, Gene and Harriett are still active with their church and the Community Foundation of Central Illinois, where they founded the Fund for Public Art. A classroom at the Peoria Riverfront Museum also bears their name, a tribute to their commitment to its development. These days the pair is also busy keeping tabs on their growing family—five daughters, 13 grandchildren, 19 great grandchildren and counting! They’re adamant they’ve “lasted this long” by putting family and religion first, and by nurturing a resolve to serve others.
Where did you two grow up?
Gene: I was born in Pontiac, Illinois on a farm, and attended a one-room school for eight grades. I had a good opportunity to assume responsibility because my dad passed away when I was about 13 years old. My brother and I took up farming at that time. With my mother carrying on with two teenage boys and trying to keep the farm going, it was a little tough. She was a great leader in our upbringing. Then from there, I went up to the service…
Harriett: I think it’s important that you stayed out of high school one year.
Gene: I stayed out of high school to keep the farm going. It was a typical 160-acre farm with horses and cattle… So, I stayed out of school a year, and then went back. After I graduated, I joined the service and was in the Army Air Corps; I graduated as a navigator of B29s. We were stationed in New Mexico and all ready to go to Japan, but we never went over.
Following that return, I went to the University of Illinois and got my architectural background. I spent three years at an apprenticeship in Bloomington, and then three years gaining some construction experience in Peoria. Then Forrest Phillips and I started a firm, which we called Phillips Swager. We were above a drug store and shared a little room—say 12’ x 20’—with this starving artist. So, we had two starving architects and one starving artist! (laughing) That place was something… it was on the southwest corner [downtown] where the Cat office now is.
Harriett: I grew up in Burlington, Iowa. Both my father and mother had been raised on a farm, so we learned to conserve every little thing we had. My dad left the farm and went to Burlington—which was a big city for him—to start a practice as a doctor. They had horses for us… that was my dad’s recreation.
I was one of five siblings, and they felt it was really important for us to have an appreciation of music, so they started us with piano lessons. After we got so we could read music… they decided [to start us on other instruments]. I started with an E-flat clarinet… then my dad got me a trumpet. All five of us, my siblings, played piano, a string instrument and a wind instrument. We had Sunday afternoon soirées with our neighbors and got together and played (laughs)… They kept us out of trouble by keeping us busy. I studied music all through my third year of college—but then it finally got too hard to find time to practice, so I quit the violin…
Gene: But you did play your violin, as I recall, in the Symphony.
Harriett: Oh yes. When I came to Peoria as a bride, I played violin in the Peoria Symphony for three years. At that time, I had children… so when they started having Sunday-afternoon rehearsals… I dropped out.
Gene: Then, how about the Girl Scouts?
Harriett: That was after I came to Peoria. When my children grew up, I got involved with the Girl Scouts. My first year’s work was with handicapped girls at Franklin School… as a provisional [member] with the Junior League, and then I went on in scouting. I’d had quite a little camp experience—I had been a horseback riding counselor for three years—one year at a YWCA camp, and two years at a private camp in Wisconsin [where I] taught horseback riding. We had had horses [growing up], and my first two years of college were at Stevens College, a girls’ school in Columbia, Missouri. They gave you everything for a flat fee and you could have any physical education you wanted, so I chose horseback riding. That was how I got a job as a horseback riding counselor at Camp [Tapawingo]. Because of my experience as a counselor, they put me on the camp board the year they bought the property [for] Camp Tapawingo. So I was a board member… during the time of construction and the first three years of operation, until all of my girls had gotten through Girl Scout camp.
How did you two meet?
Gene: I lost my wife in 1980 to brain cancer. About a year or so later, I married this lovely lady, who had also become separated from her husband… We knew each other; we went to the same church. My previous wife and Harriett had done some things together.
Harriett: And our daughters were good friends in high school.
Gene: So we kind of knew each other, but we’ve gotten to know each other better in 33 years!
Did life as a married couple influence your volunteerism?
Gene: I wouldn’t say we got involved more, since we were already so involved individually…
Harriett: He was on a lot of boards. In fact, he was on the YMCA board when we got engaged, and they brought [advice columnist] Ann Landers here as a speaker, and Gene got to conversing with her…
Gene: She said, “I want to pull someone out and find out a little bit more about their life.” … [We] had not said anything to anyone in the community about getting married. And [Ann] announced [to everyone at dinner that night], “I want to tell you all that your president is going to be getting married next week!”
Harriett: I didn’t go to the dinner. We decided to just get married sooner than later. Our closest friends knew…
Gene: Well, you had better tell her what accelerated our getting married…
Harriett: Gene knew my former husband, who had been a wonderful father for 30 years… But when he left… our minister and our daughters (one of his and one of mine) decided that the life for each of us alone [was not enough]. I had been basically alone for about five years, and Gene’s wife had died about a year before… I was going down to Florida with some of my friends to play tennis… and I was hit by a car broadside…
Gene: Well, your car was hit broadside, not you.
Harriett: Yes… and I didn’t know what to do because gas was very hard to get with prices going up and up, and I knew I needed a safe car or to get this one repaired… I didn’t have anyone to turn to, so I called our minister—both he and his wife are dear, dear friends of ours. And he walked me through what I should think about, and he said, “You know who has a really nice car? Gene Swager. Why don’t you call him and get his advice?” They were both [matchmakers]—he and his wife—in fact, his wife had a bridal shower for me! But Gene came out and did the estimates and… everything for the repair of the car. I was leaving for Florida, and I said, “Too bad you don’t have a job in Florida you have to look after”… because he did jobs all over the country. He said, “As a matter of fact, I do.” So he came to Florida. While we were there, we bought a sweater [for] the minister’s wife… and he said, “I’ll drop it off at their house when I get home.” … Now, we had thought we’ll get married eventually. So he called me in Florida…
Gene: Now, wait a minute. You have to go back a little… I was representing the State of Illinois on the American Institute of Architects [AIA] board and had served about three years. After my wife died, the then-president [came to see me] and he wanted me to attend the national convention. I said, “No, I have to stay for work.” And he said, “Now Gene, if I told you it’s in Hawaii, would you go?” So I said, “Well, I can discuss it with the guys at the office and see what they say…” So anyway, I discussed [the trip] with Harriett, and she kept dragging her feet, but the minister was pushing and her daughters were pushing… When I went to drop off that sweater, [they had me stay for dinner], and by the time I left, they had convinced me that I should probably take her with me on that trip, as a married couple.
Harriett: He called me in Florida and said, “Would you have a dress you could wear if we got married on March 28th, and you could leave for Honolulu on March 29th as Mrs. Harriett Swager?” I said, “Yes, I do.” And that was 33 years ago.
Gene, how did you and Forrest Phillips come up with the idea for Phillips Swager Associates? Tell us more about starting the company.
Gene: I had always envisioned myself as leading, not following—which you always do when you’re employed, of course. I think that I just had the itch, and [Forrest] had already broken in [to the field]… So we had some discussion. When you graduated in architecture, you graduated with one of two basic things: architecture and design, or engineering. He was design, and I was engineering. So that’s what persuaded us, and we started in a very humble way. We got some 2x4s and clamps, put them out, and had a drafting board. It was very primitive. I always say, “I had my wife’s ironing stool for my drafting stool.” (laughs)… We struggled for a while, but eventually got involved in community consolidated schools, and that was where we took off.
What were your goals as a company?
Gene: The first goal was to survive, naturally. The other goal was to serve. And whatever we did, we did right. So we grew from the two of us to… when I left, we had 150 [employees]. We had offices up around the Naperville area and down in Dallas, Texas. So, we sprang out a little bit and it seemed to work. One of the things that happened when I was on the AIA board… a sociologist in criminal justice visited with my partner, Phillips, and he said maybe he could help us get into this [field]. I was a little squeamish, being a bit conservative, but… when I was on the AIA board, this was all just springing forward: that we’ve got to do something about corrections. Of course, now we’ve got too much corrections. (chuckles) But people around the country needed somebody who was out leading in that area, so we associated with a lot of architects.
What are you most proud of having accomplished with the firm?
Gene: When we were first starting, I read an article by the then-president of Avis, which had just formed—the rental car business. He talked about how the best way to get an attitude of agreement is to sit around a round table—that everyone gets an input—and you’re successful when everyone thinks it was their idea. So that is kind of the theory I always had. The other thing is, whomever you serve, serve well and honestly… I would say we had a reputation for serving and serving well.
You two have spent a lot of time serving the community. How do you prioritize your time?
Harriett: Sometimes we wonder!
Gene: I don’t know… I guess speaking for myself, I got involved with the YMCA on the board and as a trustee, and I was involved with my church and Methodist hospital—for about 10 years, I chaired the foundation for the hospital. And I was on the founding board for Habitat [for Humanity of Greater Peoria] and very active with Illinois Central College and their foundation… I just always enjoyed contributing something where there was a need, and where I thought I could contribute something.
Harriett: He was involved in all of those things before we were married, and I had been very involved in the Symphony and Opera—both of which he really enjoys—so we just made our lives busier by doing both.
Tell us about your involvement with the Community Foundation of Central Illinois (CFCI).
Gene: We had a neighbor and a very good friend of ours—he was great at fundraising…
Harriett: Lew Burger. He and Donna Haerr [CFCI’s first executive director] came over to ask if I would go on the board at the time when John Sahn was president. We wanted to make sure it wouldn’t be a conflict with the United Way.
Gene: I was involved with the United Way too at that time. I told Lew Burger that I wasn’t sure if I was for this new thing if it was going to detract from the United Way… and he said, “It won’t.”
Harriett: This was probably five or six years after Ed Siebert and Lew Burger had decided that Peoria was right for a community foundation. So I wasn’t on the very first board, but I went on not long after it started. In addition to all of this, Gene hasn’t mentioned The Salvation Army, but he’s been very involved with that.
Gene: I chaired the Tree of Lights campaign—about the third or fourth chairman they had.
Sounds like you just can’t say no!
Harriett: But I’ll tell you what it did… it gave every single man in the firm the idea that they owed something to the community. And I don’t know how you did it, but you always explained to them that you’d been asked to take [another] job…
Gene: Well, I’d ask them for approval.
Harriett: He was a natural for it. When I went on the board for CFCI, Gene was 100 percent behind me, and in on all of it. Donna Haerr said, “We don’t have anyone on the board whose priority is the arts.” She said, “Talk to Gene and see if you two wouldn’t be interested in starting a public art fund. So, the first donation we made was to start that fund. We didn’t want it to be called the Harriett and Gene Swager Public Art Fund—
Gene: And it isn’t.
Harriett: Technically it isn’t, but it always somehow comes out in the paper as that.
Well, what was your name for it?
Harriett: A public art fund is what it is.
It does always appear with your name on it, so I guess you’ll just have to take credit for it!
Harriett: (laughs) Gene had taken me over to Columbus, Indiana to see what Cummins had done over there. [Cummins, the engine company, had incorporated a sculpture into its corporate headquarters, and the city is well known for its public art.] He said, “If we start this… maybe other businesses will decide that this is a good thing to do, too.”
Gene: …to enhance their facilities by having a sculpture there.
Harriett: There have been quite a few public art [projects]. One of the rather recent ones the Public Art Fund supported was the sculpture on the Underground Railroad [Preston Jackson’s “Knockin’ on Freedom’s Door”] at the Civic Center. And the mobile in the center of the Civic Center auditorium was also supported in part by the fund. We’ve done as much as we could. Gene talked to the board [at the Civic Center] to see if they would like some major art…
Gene: They had a performing arts center, but they did not have art… And so there were a couple of pieces done and we put together enough funds for a major sculpture to put in front of the performing arts center—it’s the big circles [“Cedric the Dragon” by Nita Sunderland].
What other works of art is the fund responsible for?
Gene: There’s the one Harriett gifted to me on my 65th birthday. It was the arch—they called it the “Peoria Portal” [by Barry Tinsley].
Harriett: It’s now in the [Peoria Riverfront] Museum Sculpture Garden.
Gene: When she said it was for me, I said, “No, [it should go] to some other entity.”
Harriett: He said, “You give it to me, and I’ll give it to Lakeview [Museum].” So together, we gave it to Lakeview! (laughs)
Gene: But they didn’t have a great spot for it at Lakeview where they were, so that was one of the conditions: that we could leave it in front of our office on Knoxville for a period of time. But it was always theirs. So it stayed with PSA, the same firm—even [when they moved] down to the waterfront, until it got [transferred].
Harriett: Jim Richerson [former museum CEO] did a great job of relocating and lighting it.
So, as if you aren’t busy enough, how else have you been spending your time in retirement?
Gene: Well, trying to keep the house going and the yard going and the meals going (laughs)… We’re currently doing a sculpture for our church.
Harriett: It isn’t here in Peoria yet.
Gene: It’s in Colorado—the foundry’s all done, and we’re just waiting for it—it’ll be about another month and it’ll be brought up. Our church [First Federated Church of Peoria] had an opportunity to buy the Great Central Insurance building on the corner of War Memorial and Sheridan… It’s a one-story building [with]… 20-some acres… But people kept saying, “Well, that’s that kind of a building, and we’re a church…”
Harriett: It looked like an office building.
Gene: I said to Harriett, “There ought to be something on or near the building—a religious item, that would make people think of the building as a church and a campus.” We knew this sculptor, and we presented [the idea] to the board that we would like to provide it and place it at the new entrance to that facility. [It] shows Jesus sitting down and holding a child. It’s about seven feet tall, with his hand out. “Come Unto Me”—that’s the name of it. So, that’ll be in place soon…
Gene: We also did the one for the Methodist [now UnityPoint] hospice program.
Harriett: It’s another Nita Sunderland [sculpture].
Gene: That one is called “Passages” and it’s got the cathedral-style interplay… It’s on Glen Oak.
Have you thought much about legacy? What do you two want to be remembered for?
Do you have any other guiding life philosophies?
Gene: I think we were both brought up to respect others, and to be honest in whatever we did—and if we made an error, to correct it.
Harriett: Family and religion have probably been the two driving forces in both of our lives—which is one reason I think we’ve lasted as long as we have! iBi