NISKAYUNA — Schenectady County lost a stalwart volunteer and role model to many when Esther Swanker passed away Thursday, at age 90.
Countless friends and community leaders described Swanker as passionate, philanthropic, spunky, beautiful, remarkable, committed, inclusive, a mentor, a trailblazer and a force.
She was born in Syracuse in 1927, and after graduating from Syracuse University, she married Henry Swanker in 1952.
Her career wound from field director at the Girl Scouts of America to technical writer and editor at GE to high school librarian to various positions in state government, including taking a post in 1979 as the assistant commissioner for human resources at the Department of Transportation, where she was one of few women in positions of leadership.
Friend and attorney Michelle Wildgrube, who first met and was inspired by Swanker in the early 1990s when the two worked with the Girl Scouts, recalled seeing a picture of Swanker when she worked at the DOT and noticing she was the only woman in the photo.
“I can only imagine how hard that was and how strong she had to be to rise through those ranks,” Wildgrube said.
That strength and determination followed Swanker into retirement, where she put her administrative talent and passion for literacy and libraries to use serving on the Schenectady County Library Board of Trustees, including at least a decade as its president, and later on the board of the Mohawk Valley Library System.
Schenectady County Library president Karen Bradley remembered Swanker as a focused, diplomatic development maven who drove a campaign that raised $2.5 million for the children’s wing, dubbed the Wright Family Center, at the central branch of the library. That wing opened in 2012.
“That was a time of tremendous work for the board and particularly for Esther,” Bradley said. “Her leadership, connections in the community and seeing the project through was an enormous contribution.”
When it appeared the central library would have to close for the renovations, there was public outrage. Swanker was undeterred and began working with the architect and contractors to ensure the library would remain open during the work.
“It was quite an undertaking,” Bradley said. “But it worked beautifully.”
Bradley also credited Swanker with starting or driving many programs within the library system, including the One County, One Book program and a lecture series between the library and Union College called Town and Gown.
“In addition to being a library advocate, Esther was a really avid reader and book lover,” Bradley said. Swanker particularly enjoyed author David Baldacci.
In addition to her work with the Schenectady County Library, and in more recent years with the Mohawk Valley Library System, Swanker also served on the board at the Ellis Hospital Foundation for many years.
Ellis Medicine president and CEO Paul Milton called Swanker as someone special.
“She possessed rare combination of warmth and kindness, with a drive to get the job done for the good of her community,” Milton said in a prepared statement. “We all recognize how much Ellis benefited from Esther’s generosity. Just as important, she was a cheerleader who was always out there spreading the Ellis story. She not only gave of herself but was the great facilitator, working with us to make connections with other leaders in the community. Perhaps what I admire most about Esther: Her end goal was always making the Schenectady area a better place for everybody.
“Over these past few days, I’ve reflected on what a tireless advocate Esther was for Ellis, and how we benefited from her wise counsel. Then it occurred to me: She lent her energies and talents not only to Ellis, but to so many other organizations and people. You can’t help but conclude that our community is a much richer place because of Esther.”
Swanker also brought her can-do attitude and development acumen to the board of miSci, where friend and Vice President for Development Carmel Patrick remembered Swanker as more than a fundraiser.
“She is someone who is a role model in terms of my own community service,” Patrick said. “She had Schenectady in her heart and Schenectady’s best interest in mind.”
Patrick said Swanker was seen not just rubbing elbows with donors, but actively participating in fundraising efforts like manning the cash box at book sales.
“She rolled up her sleeves and got involved,” Patrick said.
Fellow miSci board member and close friend Jane Golub recalled Swanker as an invaluable part of the board. Golub also recalled Swanker as a woman with a mind of her own who loved being social and going out, but also got the job done
“She was a lovely, gracious lady with very much her own opinions,” Golub said. “She thought creatively, and I am proud to have been her friend.”
Swanker was not all work and no play. For decades she and friend Marion Grimes hosted an annual garden party in July. First at Swanker’s home and later held at the Mohawk Golf Club. The summer soiree was a veritable who’s who of Schenectady citizens, and although Swanker herself was a staunch Democrat, friend Joanne DeVoe recalled that she was inviting and inclusive of people from both sides of the aisle.
Friends recalled that Swanker lit up the room and was always well-dressed in fashions she often bought from Musler’s on Upper Union Street.
DeVoe also credited Swanker with getting her business off the ground by offering advice and connecting DeVoe with potential clients.
“She was quite remarkable,” DeVoe said. “She will be missed by the whole community.”
“Her passion was for Schenectady, and she was so proud to be named a Schenectady Patroon,” Wildgrube said. “It meant so much to her. [The award] hung in her home at the Glen Eddy.”
Swanker left a legacy from the library on Clinton Street to the medical school at Albany Med, the facility to which she donated her body upon her death.
According to Wildgrube, there will be a Mass and gathering to honor Swanker’s life later this spring. At that time, she will be laid to rest in Most Holy Redeemer Cemetery, where here husband, Henry, is also buried.
Update April 4 — A burial mass for Esther Swanker will be held at St. Kateri Tekakwitha Parish on Rosa Road on Saturday, April 7 at 10 a.m. Read the full obituary.