REAL PEOPLE: Swart looks back on a life of work and volunteerism

By Katy Nesbitt, The Observer January 27, 2014 10:05 am

JOSEPH — A quick glance back on the 80 years of Don Swart and one recurring theme can’t be missed: the man likes to work. Retired for more than a decade from running the county’s weekly paper, Swart historically has had a hand in a variety of causes.

Swart spent 40 years with the Wallowa County Chieftain, after his father-in-law, Gwen Coffin, asked him to come work for him at the Chieftain for a summer. 

At the time, Joseph had a paper called the Herald and the Observer and the Oregonian were distributed in Wallowa County, but Swart said the circulation of the Chieftain was basically every household in Wallowa County. 

“Our circulation at the height of my career was 4,000 and everybody was dissatisfied with it like people are with all papers,” he said. “I think I did a pretty good job and I think I was well liked by at least a handful of people.”

As the editor of any paper, it’s best to have a thick skin. 

“You have to care about what you are doing, but you can’t care very much about what people are saying about what you wrote,” Swart said.

Writing editorials exposes an editor to a lot of criticism, Swart said. 

“The majority of the paper readers will go first to the editorial page and look for the letters,” he said. “That’s where the world turns.”

If the editorial pages are paramount to a community paper, so is the front page. Swart said his father-in-law told him to always have something about the kids on the front page.  

“If we had more kids on the front page, we’d have less kids in the sheriff’s office,” he said.

Even small communities have their strife.

“When the Bates Mill in Wallowa closed down in the 1960s, it was as full of tension as anything I’ve ever been through,” Swart said. “The mill owner would not negotiate with the workers on a new wage so they went on strike. The owner said, ‘If you don’t go back, I’m going to close the mill for good’ and he did.”

Another contentious story Swart said he covered was the proposal to build a new school in Enterprise.

“The courtroom was full of people,” Swart said. “I took a tape machine and taped the whole meeting. There were those that spoke for it and those who spoke against it. I wrote the story and set it up in type for the Thursday morning run. The paper 
hit the streets about 
7:30 a.m. and I knew somebody was going to come in and complain.”

A friend and community leader was on his doorstep soon after the paper hit the newsstands declaring he had been misquoted. Swart played the tape back. The quote was written exactly as it had been said. 

“That’s what I said, but not what I meant,” Swart recalls his friend saying in protest.

Swart’s community involvement included a stint as president of the Enterprise Chamber of Commerce in the mid-1970s. He and Jerry Perren thought that each city having its own chamber wasn’t the best way to market the county.

“Because every chamber had the same goal of promoting tourism, they all had their own little budgets and no one was doing a very good job at any of it at that time. Jerry Perren was retired from the Air Force and he was always looking for something to do. We were able to put this together. It was very iffy at the end of my term if it was going to survive, but Jerry stuck with it and he’s the one that made it go.”

Of all the things in which he’s been involved, Swart is proudest of his work with Rotary exchange students in a district that covers 70 clubs in half of Oregon and part of Washington.

“Some of the things I have done have made an impression on others that would make them have a good effect on the world,” he said.

“Kids on the youth exchange program go home and I think, ‘Some day this kid will be the president of his country.’ In turn, American kids come back immensely changed.”