By Tara Kirkpatrick
Gerald Swanson, a beloved University of Arizona economics professor, bestselling author, sought-after business speaker, husband, father and grandfather, died in January of cancer. He was 79.
Swanson was one of the region’s sharpest economic minds, teaching students at the Eller College of Management for more than 40 years and winning every teaching award – some more than once – for his ability to simplify complex principles through his engaging style. Students often changed their majors to economics after taking his class.
“Gerry was an inspiration to everyone,” said Eller Dean Paulo Goes. “He had this unique mix of a great personality, knowledge of economics and a gift for explaining concepts. He was a great storyteller.”
Studying business and engineering at the University of Illinois, Swanson earned his doctorate in economics in 1971 and honed an innate gift for public speaking. After moving to Tucson with his wife, Gwen, he accepted the post to teach large economics lectures at UArizona. When Swanson retired in 2012, he had taught more than 40,000 students.
“He always prepared very conscientiously for his classes, but was able to be so spontaneous in person,” said Gwen. “He always paid attention to what was going on so he could relate economics to what was going on in the world. He had a passion for economics, but he really was a showman. I’d always ask him, ‘How’d you come up with such a witty thing to say?’ ”
“He connected the concepts with real-world situations in a way that got students excited to learn more,” said Dan Twibell, a 1992 UArizona economics graduate who founded Skysis, a Scottsdale-based biopharmaceutical consulting firm. “I credit Professor Swanson with much of my business success.”
Swanson was asked to join a tax reform commission in Phoenix, where he met Thomas R. Brown, the late co-founder of Burr-Brown Research Corp. Brown was looking for someone to carpool with from Tucson. “Gerry would joke about how my dad would just pepper him with questions on the drive,” recalled Brown’s daughter, Sarah Smallhouse. “They were always chuckling and analyzing. Gerry became one of his closest personal friends.”
Swanson and Brown would start the Arizona Council on Economic Education to instruct high school teachers how to incorporate economics into their curriculum. Swanson became the council’s executive director and held workshops throughout the state – a mission that would lead to consulting on a Disney film, “The People on Market Street.” Later, he consulted both corporations and governments.
Swanson traveled to South America in 1987 to research his first book, “The Hyperinflation Survival Guide,” and later co-authored “Bankruptcy 1995,” a New York Times bestseller publicly lauded by Ross Perot that landed Swanson on talk shows, including NBC’s Today. His 2004 book, “America the Broke,” was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
“The world has lost one of its national treasures,” said Amy Cramer, a Pima Community College economics professor who chose Swanson as a mentor. “His work on the national deficit is not in some dusty library somewhere. This is one of the most important issues of our day and we put ourselves in peril not to read his books.”
Swanson also taught economics teachers across the nation and the world and was constantly asked to speak to industry groups in petroleum, food and farming. The Tucson business community enjoyed Swanson’s annual Economic Outlook forecast, which he delivered with humor and optimism, even when the outlook was bleak.
When Smallhouse and her family formed the Thomas R. Brown Foundation, Swanson joined the board and devoted 22 years to its mission to advance economics and STEM education, civic leadership and workforce development. “Had it not been for Gerry’s leadership, I don’t think the Brown Foundation would be doing the work it is today. He profoundly impacted our focus.”
Perhaps most telling of Swanson’s benevolent influence came at his standing-room-only memorial service in January, where friends and family spoke also of a man who loved musicals, made a mean margarita and left people happier in his presence.
“People say the measure of a life well-lived is the impact you have on others and that was Gerry,” Goes said. “He impacted the lives of everyone – his fellow faculty, his students and everyone who knew him. He was amazing.”