I have many wonderful memories of Al (I never called him Mr. Swanson!). He was an outstanding teacher and coach. He was discerning and giving. He was driven and considerate. He was old-school; he was a patriot and he was a gentleman. Indeed, he opened doors for me. It has been over 20 years since he helped me with Legion Oratory. The yearly competition is centered on the American Constitution. It is a unique speech competition. Participants must memorize over 30 minutes of speech material. It is a patriotic endeavor and the format is truly very demanding. Looking back, it is especially poignant that my coach, Al, had been honored with two purple hearts. He loved his country and he was so proud to be active in the Legion. I could feel the pride and respect he had whenever he was with his veteran brothers and sisters at the Legion. It was an extraordinary honor to visit so many Legion posts around the Midwest with him.
Today, I cannot fathom the time, patience and strategy that he must have put into those two years; 1987 – 1988. Neither one of us had a problem with hard work, tough feedback or long hours. I guess it made for a winning combination. He would drive me (and my mother) all over the Midwest to the various speech competitions; local, region, district, state, etc. Working with Al was such a privilege. By the time he worked with me, he had already coached for decades. I knew his help was invaluable and I was eager to meet his expectations. I remember “the look” if he didn’t like the way something was delivered. I remember the determination to make the speeches and the delivery flawless. I remember relentlessly reciting passages, sometimes as many as twenty or thirty times, until they passed muster. Some speeches were rewritten within minutes of a competition. Obviously, we both loved it. At competitions, Al would help me by scouting the competitors and the judges. For one of the bigger state contests, Al said he would take me out to eat anywhere I wanted… if I won. We ended up at the Boston Tea Party in Bloomington – a seafood place – and he let me order lobster. It was a first for me and I still remember it like it was yesterday.
The pressure we were under the week of April 10th, 1988 was intense. The Legion Oratory competitions were every other day in different cities around the country. That week was a whirlwind. At the time, I could not appreciate fully what was happening, but I know that Al was in his glory. We ended up at the Nationals in Denton, Texas. I knew he was proud of what we had accomplished. Yes, indeed, I know the passion he had for Speech and especially Legion Oratory.
There were many, many times when I fell short of winning. But, I never recall a moment of shame or embarrassment with Al. For all the scrutiny that was part of speech preparation, we never dwelt for a second on the misses. We just tried harder and usually won the second time around. And so I remember a man who inspired me with his wisdom, and moved me with his drive for excellence, that inspired me with his integrity, and who taught so many — including one tall 17-year-old girl — that you can accomplish anything with hard work and perseverance.
May God bless Al Swanson.