‘Be aware, involved in the world around us’

MaryHelen Swanson receives NB Lions 2013 Community Service Award on Governor’s Night

MaryHelen Swanson gives her acceptance speech after being presented with the North Branch Lions 2013 Community Service Award. Photo by Jon Tatting
MaryHelen Swanson gives her acceptance speech after being presented with the North Branch Lions 2013 Community Service Award. Photo by Jon Tatting

MaryHelen Swanson is a journalist, a wife, a mother of five girls, a grandmother and a dedicated member of her church and community.

Many know this Rush City area resident as past editor of the ECM Post Review, a local newspaper she poured her heart and soul into for almost 14 years. She covered countless government meetings and community events to keep folks informed and entertained; her photography reflected a part of the world we may otherwise miss.

Above all, Swanson is all about her community, a community that has returned the favor with a reward of its own.

The North Branch Lions awarded Swanson with its prestigious Community Service Award during its Governor’s Night, complete with dinner and awards banquet, March 12 at the Legion Hall in downtown North Branch. The 11th recipient of the award, she accepted it with the following words:

“I am deeply honored to be receiving the award from the North Branch Lions,” Swanson began. “I greatly respect the Lions, both in North Branch and Rush City, for all the unselfish work they do in and for the community.

“During my years as editor, I hope I sufficiently conveyed the importance of the Lions clubs and other similar volunteer organizations in our communities. We really do owe a debt of gratitude to them for their gracious contributions.

“Many years ago I had a bumper sticker that read, ‘Only volunteers can go to heaven.’ It was meant to be humorous, I guess, but I expect the reunion will be magnificent one day.

Swanson pictured with 5M7 District Governor Lion Paul Hanson (left) and North Branch Lions President Chris Thoma. Photos by Jon Tatting
Swanson pictured with 5M7 District Governor Lion Paul Hanson (left) and North Branch Lions President Chris Thoma.
Photos by Jon Tatting

“I also want to stress the importance of being involved in one’s community, whether through a civic organization, one’s church, working with youth, being part of a community sports team or serving on boards and commissions that work to better the future of our hometowns.

“I imagine I learned these lessons from my parents. My mother was involved outwardly by working with scouts and school organizations, along with neighborhood groups. My father’s contribution was more subtle. For instance, he would fashion beautiful crosses out of scrap wood for area churches and donate them without fanfare. Or he would quietly fix something for a neighbor, when he saw a need.

“Each of us, in our own way, needs to be aware of the world around us and involved in it as we are able,” Swanson concluded.


Finding journalism

Swanson fell in love with journalism some years back when she helped launch the student newspaper, the Rum River Review, at the old community college or “Pole Barn U” in Cambridge. A full-time student at the time, her eyes were wide open to the wonderful things she could accomplish with such materials as ink, paper and film at her side.

Aside from her writing and photography talents, along with the ability to find a good story to tell, she worked on a committee that organized the dedication for a new campus building that is today’s Anoka-Ramsey Community College.

It didn’t take long for her to figure out her place in life: hardly just another journalist but a community journalist who upholds quite a position of leadership in any community.

She moved to reporting under Evelyn Puffer for the Isanti County News in Cambridge. In 1999, she earned the editor’s chair at the ECM Post Review, where she worked and documented the news of the times until last fall.

Her “Sunday Night” columns were a “must read” for many readers who wanted her insights on the issues that mattered. Family life, people’s achievements and urging folks to action, like when the local food shelves were empty, also were regular topics in her columns.

“I enjoyed writing my column, pointing out the wonderful people we have and their contributions. A lot of times, they wouldn’t otherwise be acknowledged,” Swanson said over a cup of coffee at Kaffe Stuga in Harris. “A lot of people tell me they miss my column. I’m considering a blog. I have a laptop computer and trying to learn it.”

As many can recall, Swanson loved telling stories through her photography, too, whether it was hard news or a simple tree with golden leaves in autumn. It seemed she saw the world through her own personal camera lens.

“Photography has been my baby forever,” she explained. “I love capturing people, places, events and nature. I was late to work sometimes because of my photography at Fish Lake. I always keep my eyes open.”

Throughout her career, she always listened intently to the police scanner, in case there was a fire or accident that would be of interest to the community. She consoled both friends and strangers out in the field, whether on or off the clock.

“There’s a whole other life going on with the scanner that people don’t know,” Swanson said. “I think that’s the life of a community newspaper — to be part of it. I never asked a reporter to do what I never did. And I did it all.”


Her philosophy

When Swanson first took the editor’s job at the Post, she admits it was “kinda scary” to work and live in the Rush City area. When she worked in Isanti County, “it was easier because they weren’t my people,” she explained.

In any event, a community journalist focuses on the important things because gossip can be harmful. “You try to get the truth as much as possible, but it doesn’t always happen,” said Swanson. “Sometimes police reports aren’t always true; you can get different versions (of a story). To see things with my own eyes is huge, important.”

Aside from the government meetings and the late nights away from her family, she went to all the Winter Festivals, Santa Days, school carnivals, school plays and the list goes on. She tapped a toe or two to the Chmielewski Band on many occasions and absolutely loved hanging out at the local senior center.

“People would tell me, ‘Don’t you go home?’” she smiled.

She was a faithful participant in representing the Post at the Community Connections Expo in North Branch, where she enjoyed getting to know new people. At the senior center, she can’t say enough of how important a role it plays for local seniors.

“I know the importance of that senior center,” Swanson said. “I know my mother enjoyed going to the senior center in Forest Lake. It got her out of her apartment, and it’s not just playing cards. It’s very important to keep social and talk health issues with nurses. We can’t forget our seniors.”

Looking back on her career, Swanson remembers covering four school districts, more than five cities combined in Isanti and Chisago counties, two county boards and multiple planning commissions. One meeting on the county’s comprehensive plan went until 3 a.m.

“Dick (her husband) had the police out looking for me,” she smiled.

She never backed down from an issue, either, whether it was the power plant in Chisago County to budgets at the city, county and school district levels. She even wrote a poem after Chisago County passed its final budget one December.

“I scheduled my life around budget time,” Swanson laughed.

She also schedules her life around her many duties at Calvary Lutheran, “our pretty little church on the hill,” and her family. With daughters Mandy, Greta, Amy, Heather and Pam, Swanson will never forget all the 4-H projects and scouting activities they worked on together.

But those are stories for another day.


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