When just under 200 runners lined up for St. Scholastica's "Swanny" race this fall, few realized that they were honoring a tenacious woman who served as the inspiration for much of the college's recreation and athletic programming today.
This year marked the third year the "Swanny" has been held in honor of Gladys Swanson, and many people are enthusiastic about honoring this trail-blazing pioneer with the commemorative tradition.
"History is an important part of The College of St. Scholastica," Luke Moravec, student activities coordinator, said. "It's not just about the future, it's also about the past."
Most passionate faculty strive to leave a lasting legacy for their students, but not many achieve this aspiration with such resolve as Swanson did.
Serving as physical education director at CSS from 1931-1969, Swanson pioneered the development of female athletics and recreation in not only Duluth, but also on a regional and national level.
Decades before Title IX became law, guaranteeing high school and college women athletes equal opportunities in funding, access and facilities, Swanson had the vision and foresight for innovation in collegiate female athletics.
"She was focused on something way ahead of her time," Moravec said. "She has become a historical beacon for where we are today."
Swanson, remembered by her nickname "Swanny," developed CSS's physical education requirement in 1931 and established the physical education major in 1965.
"Swanny thought of education as a full body experience," Bo Ekmark, director of campus recreation, said. "She offered things that even women today don't have the opportunity to participate in."
Women engaged in activities such as ice skating, cross-country skiing, golf, dancing, bird watching, archery, bowling, volleyball, calisthenics, badminton and even floor hockey.
Sister Agnes Alich, current professor of chemistry and one of Swanson's students in 1951, said that all of the sports were highly physical. "Her goal was physical development and physical strength," Alich said. "None of these were ladylike games."
Swanson had high expectations and was known among students and faculty as demanding, stern and even somewhat of a spitfire. "She was even feared at times," Ekmark said.
Alich, who also worked as a faculty member with Swanson, described her as a strong, commanding and powerful woman.
"To get [the physical education program] going she had to be a power figure just to get the faculty to agree with the requirement," Alich said.
Swanson would speak passionately at faculty meetings about the importance of athletics and competition as key components in the development of young women. "No matter who you were, you took Phy. Ed.," Alich said.
The nickname Swanny was never actually used in front of Gladys Swanson, but became prominent after her retirement. "She was a proper lady and you called her Mrs. Swanson," Alich said, also noting that not even faculty called her Swanny.
She held high standards of participation, and Alich said Swanson was very observant. "She didn't just run the games, she watched how people participated," Alich said of the way Swanny taught her physical activities, such as ice skating. "If you were just kind of on the ice with skates, it would show in your grade."
Alich remembered a handicapped classmate whose alternative to the athletic activities was serving as a referee. "You didn't escape," said Alich of Swanson's strict participatory terms.
In an age when most women's colleges focused on classroom education, Swanny believed that recreation and experiential learning were just as important as academics.
"Education seeks to develop in young children today certain vocational skills; physical education also seeks to develop skills, and skills that play a part in vocational success," Swanson wrote in an article from a 1940 edition of "The Scriptorium," the campus newspaper. "Education fosters high character in future citizens; physical education aspires likewise to such achievement."
She viewed recreation as an essential component to the curriculum of a liberal arts education. Swanny was quoted in "Towers," the 1962 St. Scholastica yearbook, having said, "Manly games, or games of skill, or military prowess, though bodily, are accounted liberal."
Swanson's students had to prove skills of competence in physical activities in order to graduate. Both Ekmark and Moravec said senior students were known to spend the morning of commencement bowling in the college alleys, working to pass certain skill levels in order to graduate. "She felt that her fitness classes were just as important as chemistry," Ekmark said.
Swanson was a major player in the formation of athletic facilities on campus, aiding in the establishment of a bowling alley, ice-skating rink, cross-country ski trails and even the first athletic field in the area.
"We had the very first athletic turf field in Duluth, because she pushed for it in 1938," Ekmark said in regards to Swanson's focus on outdoor recreation.
Though the bowling alley and ice-skating rink were removed to make room for campus apartments, CSS can attribute much of its current athletic facilities to her innovation and forward thinking.
"She may not have been here when it was built, but we owe much of it to her," Ekmark said, noting that the college's strong Outdoor PURSUIT! program can also be attributed to her.
Swanson paved the way for women's athletics on campus, but her involvement in the promotion of female recreation didn't stop at CSS. Swanson was elected president of the Central Association for Physical Education for Women in 1953, and also served as the state secretary of the Minnesota Association of Health, Physical Education and Recreation.
She remained a dynamic, involved member of the community long after her retirement, volunteering as a drivers training instructor well into her 80s and receiving merit awards for her volunteer services with the Red Cross.
Though she had high expectations of her students and their participation, Swanson's main focus for the women was on finishing. Ekmark said her motto was "Just finish, girls."
"It wasn't so much about being perfect. it was about everyone finishing," Ekmark said of the motto that has inspired the Swanny race. "For us, it's taking her spirit of getting out there, moving and 'just doing it.'"
Click here to see more photographs about the early CSS sports and recreation program.