Joe Swan, former San Jose State University photojournalism professor, died Sunday, March 9 of kidney failure. He was 78 years old.
Swan was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in his early 40s. Within the last year he had both legs amputated and had been on dialysis because of complications from diabetes. According to Swan's daughter Debbie Gorman, Swan elected to stop dialysis about a month ago.
His career at SJSU began "when Dwight Bentel (former dean of the journalism department) was looking for someone to replace the photojournalism guy he had just fired," Swan recalled a month ago, that "he contacted me." Bentel had him teach reporting and editing, photojournalism, advise the yearbook staff and, later, advise the Spartan Daily staff. "He really loaded me down," Swan said.
Though it was Bentel who taught the university's first course in press photography in 1949, Swan was given credit for starting the photojournalism program. "I just had to show up," Swan said. "That's what gave people the impression that I started the program, but I didn't."
During his 31 years at SJSU, several of Swan's students went on to win Pulitzer Prizes and other accolades.
In 1970, one of Swan's graduates, Steve Starr, won the Pulitzer Prize for news photography at the age of 25, and in 1973 another student, Preston Fox, was a cinematographer for the Oscar-winning documentary "The Great American Cowboy."
"Those two things were very important to me when it came time for my promotion to full professor," Swan said.
After Starr, two more of Swan's former students - Doug Parker and Kim Komenich - went on to win Pulitzers.
Starr, who covered the Vietnam War for the Associated Press and wrote for Newsweek, recalled Swan as a soft-spoken Texan with horn-rimmed glasses. "Joe gave me that foundation to do all that," Starr said, "and I thank him for it."
Parker, whose team at the Times-Picayune received the Pulitzer for Public Service in 1997 for its series about the world's fisheries, and again in 2006 for its coverage of Hurricane Katrina's destruction, credits his smooth transition into his first real job to Swan. "He always was up to speed on what was happening in the profession," Parker said. "He always seemed to have his thumb on the pulse of the photojournalism community." According to Parker, Swan knew everybody in the Bay Area and tapped them to enrich his students' education. "I'll forever be in his debt," Parker said. "I'll never forget what he did for me."
Swan's decision to stop dialysis has brought many friends like Parker, fans and former students and colleagues out of the woodwork. "Since I've been ill, I've heard from more of my grads than when I was retiring," Swan joked a month ago.
Gorman said people who her father hasn't seen in 30 years sent cards and fruit baskets, telephoned and visited - all testaments to his impact on everyone with whom he's come into contact.
Swan grew up in Texas and became a pilot when he was a teenager. At Howard Payne University he got into a journalism program where he worked for army newspapers at different bases. He majored and graduated in English and met his future wife, Laura. He and his wife moved to San Jose, and he was hired at SJSU in 1962.
As a soldier, when Swan went to the Korean War with his newly acquired 35 mm camera, he should have gotten some great shots. But, according to Swan, the camera didn't have a light meter, so he couldn't get anything exposed properly because he didn't understand the technical side of photography well enough to figure it out. "Here was my chance to shoot the Korean War," Swan said, "and I had a good camera to do it - a Canon - but I didn't shoot very many good pictures." He later traded the 35 mm for a Speed Graphic, a camera which he said everyone in the business was using then. "You just shot everything at f-16 with a flash, and you didn't have to worry about anything else," he said.
"Who could say enough good things about Joe Swan?" said former graduate Steve Sloan. “Joe was full of great stories about his days at Grit Magazine. I doubt I was the only one in the class who had no idea what Grit Magazine was or had never heard of Grit Magazine before that class but we all listened enthusiastically because Joe was a first-class story teller. Joe was a Texan. He spoke with a Texas accent. Joe was a perfect southern gentleman. Joe watched over and cared for his students like they were his own kids. Many of us owe our careers to Joe. Sometimes he knew of job openings before the people who were doing the hiring would know they had a vacancy. Joe would hear through the grapevine someone was going to leave a job. Our students and graduates would have their applications in the hands of editors before the outgoing photographer had even given notice. He was one of the nicest people I have ever known. Joe a real role model for aspiring journalism students as well as for new faculty. We lost one of the best!” Sloan said.
While Swan was appointed temporary dean of the Journalism department in the early 1980s, freelance photographer Jack Fields became the visiting professor. After a new dean was appointed, Swan taught all of the photojournalism courses. Swan retired in 1993 and Jim McNay became the photojournalism professor.
A celebration of Swan's life will be held will be held on Saturday, March 29, 11 a.m., at the Almaden Hills United Methodist Church, 1200 Blossom Hill Road, San Jose. Casual/business attire suggested. Church: 408-269-2345.
Please send condolences to his daughter, Debbie, or son, Dick:
1680 Faraday Court
San Jose, CA 95124
Information from the SJSU Spartan Daily, graduate Steve Sloan, and the Swan family.