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Stephen and David Swensen share a laugh

Brothers and distinguished alums, Stephen and David Swensen, share a laugh at a recent reception in Stephen's honor. (UW-River Falls Photo Services)

Family tree reaches high, far

Thursday, October 20, 2005

By Debbie Griffin

Courtesy of the River Falls Journal

River Falls has produced its share of high-caliber people through the years. Two of them come home next week to do speeches at UW-River Falls.

David Swensen graduated from River Falls High School and UW-RF. He then went to prestigious Yale University, earned a doctorate and has been managing Yale’s investment funds for the past 20 years.

Stephen Swensen, David’s brother, also graduated from River Falls’ high school and university. He went on to medical school in Madison and residency in Rochester, Minn., did a fellowship at Harvard University and now is a national director for the well-known Mayo clinic.

The Swenson brothers’ parents, Richard and Grace lived in River Falls for 50 years. The couple moved to Arden Hills, Minn., in 2004, but both say they miss the people and community here.

“River Falls is a great place to be in to raise a family,” said Richard.

Grace adds, “It takes a community to raise a family.”

Richard taught at UW-RF and was dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

The Swensens came to River Falls because of an open chemistry-teaching position at the university. Dick thought he might be here a year but ended up staying from 1955 until 1987.

“There were such wonderful people and staff, plus the people in the community,” he said. “And we were always appreciative of the forum that the Journal gives the community.”

Grace mothered three boys and three girls, supported her husband in his work, plus became an ordained minister during her 50-year stay in River Falls. All six children graduated from River Falls High School and from UW-RF.

There’s David and Stephen, but the goodness of River Falls seems to have stayed with the Swensen’s other four children, too.

There’s Dan, a math-physics-chemistry professor at University of St. Paul.

There’s Jane, a member of the Commerce Committee in Washington, D.C.

There’s Linda, who graduated seminary school and is now a minister like her mom.

And there’s Caroline, who served as a senatorial page before beginning to raise her family.

Grace said, “It (River Falls) is a good foundation to work from.”

The Swensens are retired now, but they still are setting high goals.

“We’re interested in world hunger and helping people who need help,” said Grace.

Their sons’ accomplishments will be honored at UW-RF next week, David on Tuesday and Stephen on Wednesday.

David’s story

“I went to Yale because I was interested in learning at one of the world’s great private institutions,” said David.

He graduated UW-RF with an economics degree then studied them more at Yale under a Nobel-prize-winning professor.

David succeeded on Wall Street, inventing the swap and heading up a big deal for IBM involving reverse currency and foreign bonds.

While his success skyrocketed, his alma mater’s endowment fund drooped. Before long, he was in charge of investing money on Yale’s behalf and became responsible for a $15 billion endowment fund built up by alumni passionate about their school.

His thorough knowledge of investments paid off. The endowment fund has grown every year by 16.1%, which is phenomenal return by any standards and accounts for an $8 billion dollar increase during the years David has been managing it.

David even grew the fund during years when everything else didn’t - a testament to his investing savvy.

He’s written two investment books and earned awards, including a selection to be UW-RF Distinguished Alumnus of 1996.

David’s success and notable achievements have been reported by many prestigious media: New York Times; Newsweek, Fortune, Time and Forbes magazines; Wall Street Journal, CNBC and National Public Radio.

A few made the point that David could be sitting on a “mountain of money” if he so chose.

He doesn’t.

In a Time magazine interview about why he stays at Yale, David said, “I love it here. There’s more to life than accumulating a pile of money.”

David lives in New Haven, Conn., now but visited River Falls regularly until his parents moved to Arden Hills. He coaches his 11-year-old’s little-league team and has two other children ages 19 and 17.

“Growing up in River Falls definitely gave me a balanced perspective on life,” he said.

UW-RF’s College of Business and Economics invited David to be this semester’s speaker for its Executive in Residence program. He’ll talk to students about his career managing Yale’s endowment fund.

The Executive in Residence program was started a few years ago by a former UW-RF professor. Each semester, an outstanding executive comes to spend a day on campus, visit with select groups of student and faculty and give a lecture about his industry.

College of Business and Economics Dean Barbara Nemecek is excited to have David visit and said she wouldn’t be surprised if his latest book on individual investing, “Unconventional Success: A Fundamental Guide to Personal Investment,” quickly makes the bestseller list.

David will speak from 2:30-3:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 25, in the River Room at Rodli Commons. Everyone is welcome to the presentation sponsored by Pierce-Pepin Cooperative Services.

Stephen’s story

Stephen will be on campus the day after David because he was selected to receive this year’s Distinguished Alumnus award. He said he and his brother will surely get together with his parents.

“We get together every chance we get,” said Stephen.

Stephen’s been a leader in cancer research in the decades since he graduated UW-RF. He became a doctor, a professor and eventually head of radiology for Mayo Clinic. He recently got a new position as director of quality and safety for all Mayo institutions.

Stephen said non-profit Mayo is headquartered in Rochester, Minn., and has 48,000 locations around the country.

He’s led a large team of doctors and others for years and has produced research that essentially detects lung cancer at an earlier stage when there’s a better likelihood it can be cured. He volunteers an enormous amount of his time to lead other organizations, too.

In a UW-RF press release, he said, “I view my volunteer work in professional societies as a civic responsibility and contribution to my community.”

Criteria for the Distinguished Alumnus award are personal accomplishments in the person’s field; civic responsibility and contributions to their community; continuing interest in the university; and the highest integrity in professional, public, and personal relations.

He told UW-RF that he’s “tickled” about the award and said, “There’s nothing more important than teaching. I’m real pleased and proud.”

A team of faculty and students picks the recipient and gives the award in spring. And for the past four years, the alumnus visits campus for the day and shares some of what he’s learned.

Stephen has authored two books and scores of medical articles and written winning grant proposals worth millions. Those grants help support much of the research that Mayo clinic does.

He remembers River Falls fondly and said that his family’s home cooking was worth hanging around for. He remembers sharing a room with his two brothers and that his three sisters shared the other room.

“That was our childhood dormitory,” he said. “My parents had their own room of course.”

Stephen met his wife Lynn during a freshman calculus class. The two married during their senior year and have two children, ages eight and six.

Stephen will speak at 10 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 26,at Abbot Concert Hall in UW-RF’s Kleinpell Fine Arts building. His presentation, “Magnets, Molecules and the Moon,” will be followed by a reception in Gallery 101 of the building. The public is welcome to both events.

UW-RF has a place on its Web site to find more information about Stephen: www.uwrf.edu, click on Distinguished Alumnus Day on the page’s left side.

He said he would tell today’s students to “seize the day.” He explained: “The man who arises every day without an alarm clock said, ‘Life is short and you need to have a passion for it. Look for something each day that’s meaningful and has purpose. You need to get to the end of the day and be proud.’”

For more information on the Swensen brothers see page C9 of the Oct. 20 River Falls Journal.