Robert J. Swaim

Beloved Architect, Designer and Dad

By Christy Krueger

If ever there was a man with a great passion for living, it was Robert J. Swaim. 

Swaim passed away on May 9 at age 93, but his impact on the community and those who knew him will continue.

In 1969, he started Robert Swaim Architects, which later became Swaim Associates Architects. In the 1980s, he hired recent University of Arizona graduate Ed Marley, and then his own son, Phil Swaim. Both remain with the firm today. Many remember Bob as a great architect. Others say he was a compassionate and generous employer. Phil and Marley knew all sides of the man.

“As an architect, he was a great designer,” said Phil. “That was his great strength. He was an incredible designer and artist.”

Phil recalls the firm having a large project at Reid Park Zoo in the early 1990s that included signage. “We hired the San Diego Zoo artist, but they needed sketches sent first, so Dad created sketches.” It turned out that Bob’s artwork was so good, the zoo used his drawings for the signs. One of those still stands today.

Bob’s passions outside of work, according to Phil, were cycling, restoring vehicles, creating editorial cartoons and UArizona sports. “As we went through his closet, we found that one-third of his clothes were UArizona t-shirts.”

His wife, Donna Swaim, might have had some influence on Bob’s wardrobe, as she worked at the university for 50 years before her passing in November 2020.

“They were pretty impressive,” Phil said of his parents. “It was amazing growing up as Bob and Donna’s son.” Despite their busy lives, Bob and Donna always made Phil and his sister Katy their top priority. “Mom and Dad never missed a swim meet or baseball game. It was a unique partnership they had as parents and we learned by example.” 

Bob began his interest in cycling when the kids were young, and he continued that love for the rest of his days. Phil strongly believes it contributed to Bob’s long life. As he got older, Bob’s passion for biking didn’t fizzle. His mode just changed from a bicycle to an electric assist bike and then to a three-wheel trike. “He was still riding with his friends until two weeks before he died,” Phil said.

Marley was a high school student interested in architecture when his dad, a carpenter, introduced him to Bob. “I went to talk to Bob and he showed me some of his designs. I knew from that point I wanted to work for him.” A year after graduating from UArizona with an architecture degree, Marley’s dream came true, and he joined Swaim Associates Architects.

“Forty years later, this November, I’m still here and the longest-term person at the firm,” Marley said. Bob’s commitment to architecture for the community was one of the primary reasons Marley spent nearly his entire career there. 

“He liked to create places where people want to be,” Marley said. “Bob was committed to serving the community and he instilled that in us at the firm.”

Marley also admired Bob’s positive relationships with his employees and how he emphasized a team approach with everyone working together.

“It was always working with Bob not for Bob. We’ve carried that philosophy throughout the years; everyone is a team member. What I appreciate, too, is he had a great sense of humor. I sure miss the guy. He was my mentor and we’re trying to carry on that tradition and keep the legacy alive.”

A memorial celebration is being planned for this fall, said Phil. “We’re still trying to figure it out, but we thought it would be fun to have an open house at the house dad designed and lived in from 1968 until he died. I was raised there; it was an amazing place to grow up. We’ll have his editorials and artwork pinned up. He had a passion for whatever he wanted to do and he’d go in wholeheartedly.” 

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