by Barbara Sherf
Everybody has a story to tell, and longtime Mt. Airy resident Jean McBryde Swenson is helping area residents capture those stories in her popular “Writing Your Life Story” workshops offered through the Chestnut Hill Center for Enrichment and held at the Center on the Hill in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill.
The classes are so popular that they are already filled up for the fall, and will resume again in the spring. In the beginning there was only one weekly class, but last year a second weekday class was added to meet the demand, and the classes are just about filled up.
George Herold, 84, of Mt. Airy, suggested that Swenson teach workshops at what was formerly referred to as the Chestnut Hill Senior Center on Crittenden Street.
It is now known as the Chestnut Hill Center for Enrichment and is located on Germantown Avenue. He has been in her class from the start and is again enrolled for the fall semester. “I love the topics she has us write about, and I need the accountability of going to class to get my writing done,” he said.
Swenson, 74, started teaching memoir writing workshops in the late 1960s, after attending Wellesley University and Washington University, graduating with a degree in English literature. Since then she received a Master of Arts in Education from George Washington University and a certificate in Gerontology from Temple University.
Swenson’s professional life story reveals an evolution of accomplishments, from serving as Director of Continuing Education for Women at Temple University and LaSalle College to a Program Coordinator at The Mt. Airy Learning Tree to a Coordinator of Special Programs at the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency, where she created a resource guide titled “Treasures in Time: Resources for Reminiscing with Older Adults.”
The book is filled with worksheets, quotes, movie and book resources and event ideas for gathering adult learners together to capture their life stories.
CHCE Executive Director Mary Zell tells the tale of waiting for Swenson’s schedule to open up. “I had heard about Jean, but at the time she was stretched thin teaching classes at several venues in the area. We kept in touch for nearly two years until her schedule changed, and she was able to make time for us,” said Zell, noting that Swenson initially offered a 6-week session in the spring and another in the fall.
“We were regularly at capacity or beyond on Thursday afternoons, so last year Jean offered to create a second session on Wednesdays allowing everyone to get personalized attention with an opportunity to read, write and share comments.”
Swenson’s personal story is still a work in progress. The native of St. Louis has been married for 51 years to Robert M. Swenson, Professor of Medicine at Temple University Medical School. She came to Philadelphia in 1969 and was hired at Temple a year later. Swenson lived in University City for a decade before moving to Mt. Airy 34 years ago to continue her work and raise the couple’s two sons, Kirk and Neil.
In a twist of fate, Neil teaches at a Quaker school in North Carolina, and he had a boy in his class at the same time the boy’s grandfather was in Swenson’s class. In addition to teaching her workshops, Jean is busy keeping up with four grandchildren ranging in age from 8 to 13.
At a special reception in her honor at the Center on the Hill in May, members of her two classes, many longtime devotees, gathered together to read from a myriad of works.
Lafayette Hill resident George Racette has been taking the classes for the past five years. “I was able to write a book, and I’m just discovering copies of documents written by my ancestors dating back to 1870,” he said.
Irene Boyle read an essay titled “The Rocking Chair,” followed by Mr. Airy resident Shirley Green who wrote about an iron pot that nobody wanted. Carolyn L.Whitaker, 69, of West Oak Lane, digressed about memory lapses in a humorous essay titled “Just Get it Done.”
Playwright Diana Finegold, who conducts murder mystery dinners at Scoogi’s Classic Italian Restaurant in Flourtown, took the class as a first-timer. “I am a writer, but this is only the second writing workshop I’ve taken in decades. It just took me to places I never knew existed, and I’m thankful, even though they are often tough places.”
Jacquie Smith of Andorra, who came to support one of the attendees, summed up best the afternoon of listening to the 16 essays. “When we come in to this place, we see all of the beautiful pictures that line the walls of these corridors … but this intensive writing is private art that is equally as difficult to do, if not more so. We have witnessed words as art here.”
Swenson was humble in her remarks: “It’s been my privilege to teach the last five years. Everyone has a story to tell if only someone would ask, if only someone would listen,” she said. “We become keepers of the culture and carry the long recognized role of elders, passing along values and wisdom and a way of life.”
To sign up for the spring classes, contact the Chestnut Hill Center for Enrichment at 215-248-0180 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Barbara Sherf is a personal historian, writer and newer devotee of Swenson’s classes. She can be reached at 215-233-8022 or CaptureLifeStories@gmail.com