On this August day, the University of Nebraska at Omaha flags fly at half-mast for a man whose heart was as beautiful as his mind. David Swanson could have done any number of things with that extraordinary intellect. What he chose to do was to quietly make life better for thousands of Nebraskans by investing himself in a critical role that impacted its university system. It is not the kind of thing that engenders a hero’s respect in most people’s eyes. But then Dave is not most people.
I met David when I was a young professor at Nebraska, about the time he married Ronda. He was a bike-riding graduate student who thought on a different plane. As they grew into their marriage and encountered parenthood, our friendship blossomed. Linda and I were hopelessly overwhelmed with three, and then four, children, so we welcomed their curiosity and their practical help.
He loved the Twins. The first two times I typed that, it came out “loves” as if my fingers couldn’t type the past tense. He loved them stupidly, like a child, against all evidence, the way I love the Orioles. I still remember a camping trip our families took together, our boys tossing the baseball back and forth as proxies for us. My last memory of Lincoln before leaving for good is a whiffle ball game at his son’s first birthday party.
He loved the Huskers, too, even through a long period of gradual decline after three national championships. But even in frustrating times, he could always laugh at the irony of decisions that were being made. He had a lightness to his heart that did not, with rare exception, allow the blows of life to drive him to despair.
And so he served as a sort of flotation device for many, including me, a combination of humor and relentless rationality that kept us from sinking too deep. He was not just rational about science and math, but he understood the rational implications of the faith in Christ he so boldly proclaimed for all the years I knew him.
Right now I am emotional and dazed at this tragic and seemingly pointless loss. And then I start thinking of him talking to me in that uniquely nasal tone I could immediately identify if I heard it in a crowded room. He is finishing every other sentence with a rat-a-tat laugh that says, “What did you expect?” It is not a cynical question.
So much of our lives as believers is ironic. What would make Dave and me friends? How would we both marry above ourselves to women who, though born a decade apart, cannot seem to get enough of being together? Dave and I would have been stuck with each other even if we had not found so much to like in each other. But I cannot remember spending five minutes in David Swanson’s presence without laughing, even in the bad times.
You don’t lower a flag to half-mast for Ph.D. types who are computer gurus, but on the day I write this, they are lowering it for Dave. He would be laughing and saying, “Are you kidding me?” No, dear friend, we’re not. You have lived a life worthy of that. You have made a meaningful impact on so many, one life at a time, not just one professional accomplishment at a time. What you could do with your mind gave you access to our hearts. And your unselfish devotion to each of us, to your family, and to your Lord is the reason we feel not just regret, but pain, in losing you.
I know you are hearing even better commendations now. But I wanted you to hear it from me, too. Well done, beloved friend.