On Campus: The forester


Jeff Swanson, 52, a native of the Des Moines area misses Sunday mornings. But those days are gone. Swanson, a Lutheran pastor for about 20 years, says he’s got a new calling now, and he’s following it as a student at Vermilion Community College in Ely, where I met him on Wednesday as part of News Cut’s Campus Tour.

Swanson is now enrolled in Vermilion’s Natural Resources Technology Program, considered one of the best in the country. He’d like to get into forestry or wildlife management.

His decision to make a change “came at a place in my family life and personal life that it just seemed that while I always followed God’s call to various places… that was leading me to natural resources.”

He says the initial decision was hard; he had a “nervous breakdown” and quadruple bypass surgery “so the final decision to do something else, something different, and make a big change in my life was not very difficult and once the decision was made and the big dominoes started to fall for me.”

“I miss Sunday mornings, I don’t miss Tuesdays through Saturdays too much,” he says.

He’d like to work with a group of people to manage a forest or a prairie restoration. Ideally, he says, he’d like to find something in Iowa or New Ulm, where his wife is staying while he’s in Ely. They see each other once a month.

“I’m a big bison guy,” he says. He and his wife travel around the region watching bison.

So, I had to ask. “What don’t people know about bison?” And Swanson knows what you don’t know… unless you knew that bison bones were used to make brown sugar back in the day.

“At one point in American history, there were between 50 and 70 million bison that roamed across the Plains. By 1888, we had reduced bison to a population of approximately 1,000. You would think there would be a lot of bison bones across the Prairie, but it was found that bison bones made good fuel in the making of brown sugar. Virtually every bison bone upon the land was exported to the Detroit area.”

Swanson says he’s got “big hopes” for the national economy turning around soon, maybe his pension account will regain some value. But he figures that’s three years away.

As for his own economy: “My big concerns is finding a job and having a government willing to invest in natural resources.” He found Barack Obama’s inaugural address encouraging in this regard.

Swanson acknowledges that life at 52 isn’t what he expected at age 5, that’s when he first wanted to become a pastor. He thought he’d be a pastor of a large church, with a staff, living a comfortable life. “I’m missing the target,” he said. “My goals are different. I want to be less successful and more happy.” So far, so good, he says.

At Vermilion, he’s surrounded by students younger than him. And he’s got a message for them: “Do what makes you happy; you, not mom and dad and aunts and uncles. I became a pastor because of three blue-haired ladies in the front row at church. And I was a very good pastor but at the core of which is not what makes me happy and what makes me happy is nature, and outdoors.”

And bison.

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