Yes, Jeanette Robinson Swanson has passed. Once we all can acknowledge that loss, we need to understand that the absolute last thing that Jeanette wanted was a maudlin, mournful service full of crying and wailing. No melancholy soul she… Jeanette wanted music, lively conversation, the clink of a glass or two and fond remembrances of good times past and the anticipation of a bright future for all who remain. Jeanette, just as she lived her life, was under no delusions, fully understood her situation and was prepared to meet her Maker. We thought we had two to three years though that turned out to be just five months… Jeanette told me that she was ready to go though fought tooth and nail – ferociously – to stay among us. And that’s where she remains – testament of her influence in our lives – perhaps more than we realize.
I first met Jeanette and Bob at the Savannah Highland Games in 1977 when with a new Keith & Austin Ancient kilt and full kit - armed no doubt with wink and nod directions from Gib MacKenzie of Caledonian Imports fame, found them in their Clan Gunn tent. An amused Jeanette and a soon to become Hägar the Horrible admitted later they really didn’t know what to think but that first meeting evolved into a literal lifelong Friendship that saw us sharing the ups and downs of LIFE. I eventually evolved into their eldest son of questionable origins and they my surrogate parents and Mentors. Point here is that they adopted many others along the way with Jeanette always the wise counsel and the proverbial not so subtle power behind the throne.
Jeanette was born to parents Ural “Bob” Martin Robinson and Tressie Williams Robinson in Jasper, Alabama. If you had asked her when, she would only reply, “a long, long time ago” though she met her maker at the very early age of 74 years – a surprising number since her Father lived to be 95 and Mother 93. We thought that we would have her around – at least - for another decade or two…
Jeanette attended Walker High School in Jasper where she was a proud Viking long before she met Bob Swanson or was involved in the Kingdome of Räknar. From an early age she demonstrated great musical talents and as a Valkyrie of some note was an accomplished soloist in the Walker High Glee Club. She should have gone on to the University of Alabama or even Julliard to study music. Alas, her continuing education save that of life itself did not happen though Jeanette sang to acclaim in several church choirs and civic organizations. Jeanette made the decision to enter the world of business where she worked for a cotton broker and later for DuPont selling explosives to construction companies. Many thought that type casting or as we say in Human Resources – that perfect fit! For almost 30 years Jeanette was an integral Team member of the Ladd Management Company of Birmingham, working as leasing agent, property manager and as of January, 2007, a well-deserved promotion to Vice-President. With her savvy and impeccable accounting skills she long handled the administration and rentals for Ladd. Nuff said…
In her free time Jeanette was a staunch, no zealous, fan of University of Alabama Football. Ladies and Gentlemen this was all about DNA, her proud Southern demeanor and her Robinson roots. Needless to say, we had a lot to talk about the last few years especially given Alabama’s recent drubbing of Notre Dame. Thanks to Coach Saban and the rock solid Tide players who gave so much to their Fans and especially to Jeanette Swanson. You gave Jeanette yet another reason for being… I remember one Scottish function where Jeanette was introduced as the “Great Queen Helga, daughter of the great Crimson Chief of the Kingdome of the Red Elephants.” Kind of nails it.
There was a long history of Alabama football in the Robinson Family that went back to Father Bob and identical twin brother Hendricks who both played tackle for the Parrish High School football team in Parrish, Alabama. Jeanette’s Father had long been the only surviving player from Parrish’s first football team (the Tornadoes) of 1920 and when he passed at age 95, the high school paid major homage and tribute to this distinguished pioneer.
Jeanette was so proud that Father Bob was part of that circle of close Friends and support mechanism that revolved around legendary Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant of The University of Alabama. Coach Bryant made a surprise and very welcome appearance on the occasion of Robinson’s 80th birthday. For many years and until his retirement in 1982 The Bear made sure that Jeanette’s Dad had prime University of Alabama football tickets with Robinson reciprocating by making jams and jellies for Bryant. I remember Jeanette recounting a not so subtle handwritten note and hint from The Bear reminding Father Bob that he was out of jam... a request that was quickly filled.
In 2006 Jeanette went to her 50th class reunion (class of 1956) at Walker High School and was predictably asked along with other class members to offer information about their lives. Jeanette reflected that she had married a gentleman from Northern Iowa whereupon one of her stunned classmates observed, “We thought that you didn’t like Yankees and yet you married one!” Jeanette retorted, “I thought that I’d get back at em, one at a time.” Indeed, she did - though Bob proved to be a noble adversary. Jeanette confided in me later reflecting that she regretted not adding that she had married a REAL Viking! You see, Bob was a first generation American born of Scottish parents (with Norse origins) who emigrated through Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada.
Jeanette recounted how she met husband Bob even as she was dating someone else. Seems that one Sunday in June, 1967 Jeanette and a girlfriend (both bored silly) in an absolutely dead Birmingham, were looking for something to do and were steered to a party that Bob was throwing. Despite the fact that Jeanette was in a relationship, she obviously wasn’t against improving her lot and went to the party meeting Bob for the first time. After an evening of dancing and good conversation Bob asked for her telephone number though Jeanette remembers distinctly that he never wrote it down. Exasperated, she thought the whole experience, “Nice, but a waste of time.”
Jeanette recalled her surprise when Bob telephoned the next day and asked her out to dinner which after the proper inquiries she accepted. That meal turned out to be mid-evening and despite a famished Jeanette who used to early dining consuming everything in sight, an absolutely smitten Bob was so impressed he proposed marriage on the spot. It took an amused Jeanette two weeks to finally relent, accepting Bob’s proposal much to the relief of all their Friends. They were married at the Chapel in The Pines, in Hoover, Alabama on July 15, 1967 and appropriately by the Reverend Magbee, a native of Glasgow, Scotland who fittingly rolled his R’s! That event was certainly a harbinger of things to come.
In an interesting post nuptial vignette we need note that Bob drove Himself and Jeanette from the church at the top of Shades Mountain (now in Bluff Park) to the reception. While negotiating the road down the mountain, a still nervous Robert Swanson nearly drove them over the side. Jeanette in what had to be the first of many scoldings advised Bob, “It’s too late to do that now. You should have done that before the wedding, not after!”
We would be remiss if we did not mention that Bob took Jeanette on a Mexican honeymoon. No, not to Cancun, Acapulco or even Puerto Vallarta, rather, “to a high class brothel owned by one of his Friends.” Jeanette reflected that despite what most might think she, “…really, REALLY enjoyed herself and made many friends.” This didn’t, however, prevent Jeanette from lording this over Bob, using it as ammunition whenever she wanted her way - threatening to tell her Mother where they really went on their honeymoon. Despite this blackmail fodder the couple got along well and lived a great life though Jeanette admitted to the end that there was some culture shock like differing tastes in music as well as food and just the damning realization that she had, “married a Yankee”. To their credit they always worked any issues out – that seemingly being the hallmark of their very successful relationship. And part of that loyalty she demonstrated – she always had Bob’s back.
We suspect that many reading this eulogy, indeed homage, to Jeanette know of the commitment and contributions she made to the American-Scottish Community. Much of the credit for those accomplishments has been given to husband Bob, but now’s the time to come clean. Certainly Bob who morphed into the now iconic Hägar the Horrible the King of Räknar was the public face, but it was Jeanette who set the wheels in motion and kept them turning to the delight of many. The impact of her work was felt around the world from Alabama to Georgia to North Carolina to Canada, Scotland, New Zealand and on, aye, even to Texas...
It was Jeanette with her usual sensitive and keen eye who steered Bob to his epiphany - that first Scottish gathering in Wetumpka, Alabama in 1969 which reminded Bob of his heritage and the customs and habits of his parents allowing him to embrace and celebrate that which he held dear. Once pointed in the right direction by Jeanette he researched and reinforced his Gunn, MacFarland and MacKay roots. Bob and Jeanette attended the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games for the first time in 1970, returning for twenty-three straight years until Bob’s passing.
With several years of Scottish events under their belts Jeanette and Bob sought out other kindred spirits in Birmingham collaborating with Gib and Marjorie McKenzie and native Scots Ken and Isabelle Siddle broaching the idea of a Scottish Society in Birmingham that would be a Family oriented group that would educate and celebrate their Scottish roots. They soon connected with others of their Ilk including Ian and Josephine Sturrock, Charles Ingram, Larry MacIntosh and John and Pauline Hendricks among others who became the original founders of the Caledonian Society of Alabama which continues to this day. Ken and Isabelle Siddle have recounted, “The idea to form the society came from Bob and Jeanette Swanson. The first meeting of the Caledonian Society of Alabama took place in 1975 at Bob and Jeanette’s home.”
From his attendance at the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games on it appears that Jeanette and Bob sensed providence – an opportunity to pass on their enthusiasm and great love of all things Scottish! Bob was transformed into a goodwill ambassador extraordinaire for the entire Scottish Community. The Swansons profoundly influenced the lives of others with humor, wisdom, adventure and affection. Those that they touched passed that enthusiasm on to their Friends and acquaintances. As it turned out, Jeanette and Bob attracted those of their temperament and ilk, no “Ken & Barbies” rather more individualistic, eccentric, cutting edge folks – the mostly leaders, movers and shakers in their own communities. By 1978 when these folks all started hanging out together, the message spread rapidly prompting the formation of the Kingdome of Räknar and a renewed interest in that Scottish element in our society.
Point here is that if Bob was the Salesman and goodwill ambassador, Jeanette was the marketer and glue that bound us all together. Though Bob first thought the idea of The Kingdome, “silly” he ultimately morphed into the haggis-eating Hägar with his trademark horns and Jeanette became Queen Helga, the ultimate Valkyrie even with the appropriate yellow braids lovingly crafted by Lady Betty Sinclair and that red nose donated by Caro and David Irvine, 26th Baron of Drum. It was soon obvious to most that Jeanette was the power and inspiration behind the throne, and still is. Dik Browne appears to have written his Hägar the Horrible cartoon strip and created Helga with Jeanette in mind. Without Jeanette all this would never have happened. Jeanette’s children were and are the many citizens of The Kingdome. She guarded them with a jealous pride, praising or chastising as the situation warranted.
In 1991 Jeanette fought and beat cancer demonstrating incredible courage, strength and resolve that, frankly, characterized her whole life. Example - hospitalized in June for surgery she was able to make it to Grandfather Mountain in early July returning to Birmingham for yet another surgery and the start of her chemotherapy. Räknar Scribe David Chagnon reported during all this Jeanette was still punching the clock (and Bob) as often as possible especially when Bob called her “Baldy” after the loss of her hair. Jeanette characterized Bob during this period as, “a pretty good but not pretty nurse.”
For a year during this interval this writer lived with Jeanette and Bob at their old Vestavia digs and while some thought me too cheap to get my own place, I was there at their behest and invitation assuming a gille status doing the heavy lifting, most of the cooking and hauling – well you get the picture. Fittingly when my position ended in Leeds and with Jeanette’s recovery, I returned to Atlanta. What a year that was and pleasure to share a year with Jeanette and Bob.
Jeanette always consummately proud of her own Alabama Family and roots also commented that the Kingdome of Räknar was her other Family and special because, “We got to choose each other.” and, “Certainly a great form of therapy because we can escape from our busy and sometimes hectic lives, gather together, have fun, act silly and then return to the real world, refreshed and motivated.”
In June Jeanette’s ashes will find a final resting place in Barren River Lake in Glasgow, Kentucky where they will mingle with Hägar for an eternity. They will both reign once more on the occasion of the 27th annual Glasgow, Kentucky Highland Games and all the games that follow – wherever their venue. Barren River is a fitting resting place for Jeanette who leaves us inspired, refreshed and motived.
Tonight I was watching NCIS and in order to make a point Agent Gibbs gives a despondent Abby who was contemplating her ultimate worth, a fortune cookie she had gifted then new acquaintance Gibbs many years earlier. The “fortune” read and I paraphrase, “Today’s new Friend is Tomorrow’s Family.” She realized that humble gift started a Friendship that endured and prevailed and that she had made a difference - that her life had worth.
Jeanette and the work of her life made a difference in the lives of many and the reason why her Family is so considerable and will endure for many more, aye, countless generations. Jeanette reminded us to embrace our past though as prologue of a bright future in an ever changing world. By honoring Jeanette Swanson’s memory we affirm the best that we are and can be.
So as Lady Betty Sinclair once wrote as a tribute to Jeanette, ”To Helga, the fairest of the fair - to the Viking Queen that we love most, to Jeanette, a big Viking Skol!”
We say, well done and sleep well, our Queen.
Thorfinn of the Kingdome of Räknar