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Jim and Sue Swenson in their home.

Jim and Sue Swenson at their house in Dana Point, California. Though they have lived in Orange County for several years, "The Midwest still feels like home," says Swenson.

Rebel with a cause

A restless entrepreneurial spirit made UMD alum Jim Swenson a success in business. He now focuses that same energy on enriching his alma mater.

By Steve Anderson

From M, spring 2008

Job promotions are what lead to higher levels of success, right? For Jim Swenson, the opposite was true. After graduating from UMD in 1959 with a degree in chemistry, Swenson worked as an associate researcher for Honeywell. Three times he was up for a promotion to full scientist. Each time, he was rejected.

"I was not a big corporate player," recalls the Superior, Wisconsin, native. "If I saw something that wasn't right, I spoke up. A lot of times I was told to mind my own business."

After being dissatisfied in a handful of corporate settings, Swenson launched his own company with three people and $15,000. Begun in 1978, Details, Inc. made circuit board prototypes for computers and other electronic devices, eventually becoming an industry powerhouse with a client list that included IBM, Apple, and Motorola. "It's a good thing I didn't get that Honeywell promotion, or I probably would have put in my whole career there," he jokes.

Moving the museum from the Minneapolis campus to St. Paul will put it closer to relevant teaching and research in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, and help solidify the U's environmental leadership.

When Swenson sold Details in 1996, the Anaheim, California-based company had $80 million in annual sales and 500 employees. "I knew all of their names, along with the names of all of their kids," recalls Swenson. "I wanted them to feel like they were family. I may have been the guy at the podium with the long tails and white baton, but it was the employees who did such a marvelous job."

Genuine appreciation also influences the philanthropy of Swenson and his wife, Sue. When, as a UMD student, Swenson needed $900 to cover his room and board, he went to a local bank president who had advised him in the past: "He handed me nine $100 bills and said, 'This is a loan from me to you. The bank has nothing to do with it. We won't talk about you paying me back until you have a permanent job. And if you're at all capable, I'd like you to think about helping someone else someday.'"

Gift Receipts
Jim and Sue Swenson's major gifts to UMD:

>> $2.5 million to establish the Swenson Scholarship, 1999

>> $7.5 million for science classrooms and labs, 1999

>> $7.7 million for student support, 2007

>> $3.3 million for new civil engineering building, 2007

That banker's generosity continues to inspire the Swensons, who recently gave $10 million to UMD--$7.7 million for scholarships and $3.3 million for a new civil engineering building--bringing their lifetime giving to $21 million. "UMD is a fantastic school, based on what they do and the graduates they turn out," says Swenson. "The care and dedication of the faculty across the board is outstanding. It was that way 50 years ago when I was there, and it's still that way today."

In the fall, UMD announced the new name of its science college: the Swenson College of Science and Engineering, in recognition of their generosity. While the Swensons are touched by the honor, they're proudest of the support they?ve been able to give students over the years: "It's nice to build buildings and put your name on things, but down the road we'd prefer to help more kids get through college and become success stories," Swenson says. "Of the 200 Swenson Scholars that have graduated, 80 percent have gone on to professional or graduate school. That's a heckuva record."