William Swinford was “guiding light” who empowered students and colleagues

Posted on by Polk Newsroom

William “Bill” Swinford’s 32 years of service to Polk State College was marked by his dedication to empowering students and colleagues and, in turn, his ability to build the College up by cultivating the talent in others.

Colleagues describe him as a dedicated educator, committed collaborator, dynamic leader, prolific worker, gifted storyteller, and a good friend who never sought praise for his accomplishments.

Swinford passed away Jan. 22, 2020, at 80 years old.

“Bill was a guiding light in so many people’s lives,” former colleague Jim Horton shared. “Everything he did, he did to enhance the educational experience for the students. That included lifting up his colleagues and faculty to ensure that they were the best possible educators they could be in their classrooms.”

Like Swinford, his obituary is modest. He was born on Sept. 22, 1939, in Florence, Alabama. He is survived by his wife of 52 years, Sela, and sons, Michael and Brian. Without mention of his great impact on the College, the write-up encourages donations to the Polk State College Foundation in lieu of flowers.

“Bill was a guiding light in so many people’s lives. Everything he did, he did to enhance the educational experience for the students. That included lifting up his colleagues and faculty to ensure that they were the best possible educators they could be in their classrooms.”

— Jim Horton
Retired Vice President for Information Technology Services

“It doesn’t say a lot, but it tells a lot about who Bill was,” Horton said. “He made his contribution and that was enough for him – he didn’t feel like it needed to be rehashed.”

Swinford joined Polk Junior College as a faculty member in 1970. He became Dean of Instruction in 1975 and assumed the role of Vice President for Academics and Student Services role in 1998.

Paul Pletcher, who was a student of Swinford’s in the Upward Bound Program, remembers Swinford as an easy-going, even-tempered English instructor.

“I would learn later on that he was very knowledgeable about lots of things in addition to his subject area,” said Pletcher, a retired math faculty member.

Swinford’s calm collectiveness as a professor translated into his job as liaison between administration and faculty.

“He had a calming effect on the faculty during times of tension,” Pletcher said. “The College was his life and he was committed to the faculty and the students.”

Jean Reynolds, a retired English faculty member, echoed a similar sentiment.

“He really cared about the classroom and he always knew what was going on,” she said. “But he was never intrusive. He was laid back and a good listener.”

Swinford remained dedicated to faculty and staff as he transitioned to administration.

“When he would get a new task or a new job, he made it look easy,” Reynolds added. “No matter how busy he was, he was always around and available.”

David Buckley, a retired math faculty member, noted Swinford’s open-door policy.

“You could always see him and he valued everybody,” Buckley said. “The janitor was just as important as the instructors to Bill.”

Horton, retired Vice President for Information Technology Services, said there was never a time Swinford turned him away. He considers Swinford his “most outstanding mentor” and recalled one of his first faculty meetings when Swinford hired him in 1990.

“He said he couldn’t define quality, but he knew it when he saw it,” Horton said. “He encouraged faculty to find ways to enhance what they were doing in the classroom.  But the thing about Bill was, he never told us what to do or gave outright advice.”

Instead, Swinford served as a soundboard and an advisor for his colleagues and faculty.

“He would lead by guiding us,” Horton added. “He would let us come to our own conclusions. He never made people feel like he was above or better than anyone. He guided us through the process and helped us grow in our positions, all with the intent of making the College the best place it could be.”

That inspired Steve Hull, retired Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost, who recalls his aspiration to join Swinford’s “Dean Team.”

“I wanted to be on the Dean Team so badly, and Bill took a chance on me,” he said. “He was really focused on making the College everything it could be and really worked hard to make Polk State what it is today. I felt incredibly honored when I made his Dean Team.”

Hull, who is from the Midwest, considered Swinford the “quintessential Southern gentleman.”

“He was courteous and polite. I never saw him get rattled and I never saw him sweat,” he said. “Bill was a dedicated educator, a wonderful administrator, and a good friend.”

Hull and Horton called Swinford the “go-to” for colleagues with questions or ideas.

“He was never too busy for you,” Horton said. “Everyone wanted his expertise.”

That was especially true during Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) reviews as well as during the formation of the Faculty Senate.

“He was a collaborator and a mediator who was always working to find a solution.”

— Professor Lynn Wilson

Professor Lynn Wilson, former Faculty Senate president, called Swinford key to making the concept work.

“He was a collaborator and a mediator who was always working to find a solution,” Wilson said. “He was instrumental in forging a faculty senate that believed in shared governance rather than a union, which would lead to a lot of positive changes over the years.”

Retired math faculty member Lamar Middleton agreed.

“He was once faculty, so he understood the perspective,” Middleton said. “As an administrative liaison when the Faculty Senate began, Bill was incredibly helpful for a number of years. He got along with everyone and was well respected.”

When it came time for Swinford to retire in 2003, the College was sad to see him go, but his philosophy was to move aside and make room for those he prepared to lead Polk State, Horton said.

In addition to the loss of his leadership and institutional knowledge, colleagues would miss his captivating stories about his childhood in Pensacola and time in the U.S. Army, his keynotes at convocation before each fall semester, and his presence at athletics events he avidly attended.

Of all his accomplishments and awards, Horton noted, Swinford was most excited about a plaque he received from the Athletics Department for his outstanding support of the program.

“But for Bill, it was never about the awards or praise,” he said. “It was about seeing students excel and seeing the College excel.”

Swinford’s dedication to Polk State never faltered. He would arrive to campus before anyone else because “he loved to watch the College wake up,” Hull said.

“It was a reminder to take time before the trials of the day begin to appreciate what you have at Polk State College,” Hull said. “I never forgot that.”

Individuals who are interested in contributing to the Polk State College Foundation in honor of Swinford are invited to visit foundation.polk.edu/swinford for more information.