Will Swagel

Will Swagel

 

Alaska writer Will Swagel won prizes for stories he wrote on the opening of the Russian Far East, but his passion was always more for telling stories closer to home.
    “The more local, the better, was Will’s philosophy,” said his wife, Suzanne Portello. “He seemed to get a special thrill when a story was meaningful locally. If it was about Alaska, great, and if it was about Sitka, even more so.”
     Swagel, a writer, reporter and 36-year Sitka resident, died April 1 at Mt. Edgecumbe Hospital. Until the last day of March, he and Portello had been coping with his illness at home; his death was unexpected.
     The public is invited to “Will’s After Party” 5 to 10 p.m. Monday, July 2, at the Halibut Point Recreation Area main shelter. Some main course dishes will be supplied by the family, but friends are welcome to bring dishes, especially appetizers and beverages. “A baseball and a glove or two would not go amiss, either,” Portello said.
    Swagel was the publisher of the Sitka Soup, as well as a freelance writer, a contributing writer to Alaska Business Monthly, and former Daily Sitka Sentinel and KCAW-FM reporter and Morning Edition host. He was also the author of the 2009 book, “The Bight ... Before Christmas.” One of the journalistic projects he was most proud of was his 15-part series in the Sentinel about a 1988 trip, for the Sentinel, to Vladivostok in the Russian Far East.
    Swagel was born Jan. 27, 1953, in The Bronx, New York City, one of three children of Frances and Sol Swagel. When Swagel was young, the family moved to Deer Park, Long Island, which at the time still had a rural quality. Swagel had many tales about the neighborhood he grew up in, where some of the women stayed home and managed their suburban households while their husbands went off to work and returned home at night. Will’s dad, Sol, had a multi-decade career as a postman, and sometimes worked a second job as well, such as catering in New York City where he brought tidbits of delectable food home for the family. Swagel often spoke of his desire to depict this “Victory World” and its inhabitants, such as the suburban husband whose wife gave him a toaster one Christmas, and his reputation never recovered.
    “We were tickled at the fact that we both grew up in suburbia, on opposite coasts – me in the San Fernando Valley and he on Long Island,” Portello said.
     After high school Swagel attended New York University for a year, and also the State University of New York at New Palz. He met Portello while the two were working as nursing assistants at Hudson Valley Nursing Center in upstate New York. Portello remembers seeing Swagel for the first time in the lunch room. “I noticed he was reading a book by James Joyce. I sat down and commented on that and he started quoting Molly Bloom, ‘and yes I said yes I will Yes,’ which was probably the craziest pick-up line I had ever heard,” Portello said. Their second date was at his house, where the power went out during an electrical storm.
     “We hung out and ate fruit and cottage cheese and talked about books and movies,” said Portello. “Will was always a big reader – very literate, very well-read – he introduced me to several books, and by the time I met him he had already been writing for years.”
     In 1976, when they were expecting their first child, Suzanne flew across the country with her two cats, back to San Bernardino, Calif., her hometown. Swagel drove across the country - with his two cats - four months later, arriving in time to be at Suzanne’s side for the birth of their daughter, Maria.
    Swagel went to work at a Waldenbooks store. In 1977, the family moved to San Francisco and settled in the Mission District. Swagel sanded wooden floors, while Portello worked as a bookkeeper and attended nursing school at UCSF. The family relished their time in San Francisco.
    “It was a thrilling time to be there,” Portello said. “We had friends who were involved with music and art. Will wrote short stories and at least one adult novel. He also attended classes at City Lights Books and took a comedy-writing workshop – I used to find little pieces of paper all over the house with jokes on them. We painted the flat ourselves, Will sanded the floors, we had a couch we made from wooden pallets. One year we went out for Halloween dressed as our cats, and people in the streets cheered. It was larger than life, and sometimes shockingly sad as well, especially with the assassinations (of Harvey Milk and George Moscone) and the growing impact of HIV in the 1980s.”    
    The family moved to Sitka in 1982 after Portello finished her nursing degree and Sitka’s Mt. Edgecumbe Hospital was offered as an option for her to fulfill her two-year obligation under a U.S. Public Health Service scholarship.
    Within weeks of arriving in Sitka, Swagel started volunteering at KCAW-FM, covering the School Board and hosting a big band and 1930s jazz show “Nickel in the Slot.” The show opened with the sound of a coin dropping in a can, reproducing early coin-operated turntables. He was hired as a Morning Edition host by then-station manager Rich McClear, and a reporter.
     “He was a natural for Morning Edition host because he was warm and funny, especially funny, which is important,” McClear said. “You have to have that accessibility in the morning.” Swagel was especially good at two-way chats, and handing off to the next host, his former boss said.
     But McClear said he will remember Swagel best for his sense of humor.
     “He was covering a candidate forum at the Chamber of Commerce and one of the pastors asked (the candidates) if they would consult with the Lord before making a decision. None would answer,” McClear said. Swagel said quietly to McClear and others at his table, “‘I would, and I know he understands Hebrew.’ The whole table heard it. That type of humor livened up the radio station.”
     Swagel was, along with John Straley and several others, one of the writers of the locally produced radio comedy “Haven Bay.” He often spoke of the fun he had collaborating with other like-minded folks. He also wrote and produced his own original radio play and Godzilla-spoof, “Vaudvilla,” and while working at KCAW, Swagel also wrote movie reviews for the Sentinel.
    The couple’s second daughter, Hannah, was born at Mt. Edgecumbe Hospital in January of 1983. Sentinel reporter Susan Froetschel met Swagel shortly after she came to Sitka, just after Hannah’s birth. Froetschel happened to be visiting at the radio station, and Swagel had stopped by to introduce the baby to his colleagues.
     “He was beaming, like a dad,” Froetschel said. “He was such a proud father.”
     Froetschel and Swagel shared an interest in writing beyond their jobs as local reporters. They wrote freelance articles together, on topics such as Sitka history and economics, the timber industry and the herring fishery, which were published in the New York Times, Barron’s Financial Weekly, and the Christian Science Monitor. They also collaborated on fiction work.
     “Writing and talking about writing and talking about our families,” Froetschel said. “Will and Suzanne were incredible role models to me as a parent.”
     The families maintained their friendship over the years, even after Froetschel moved Back East with her family in 1988. She spoke with Swagel frequently, about matters professional, political and personal – the last time was about six weeks before his death. Froetschel said she will miss their conversations and his friendship.
    “I just felt he was an honest, honest person, and I can’t tell you how much he loved Sitka,” Froetschel said. “He cared about that town. ... He was just one of those people. It’s a big loss for Sitka.”
    Swagel took over the job vacated by Froetschel at the Sentinel in 1987, covering the Assembly, School Board, planning, police and courts, and writing feature stories for the next six years.
    He also continued to write short fiction in his spare time. Portello said his fiction often revolved around speculative themes, things he felt could happen in the near future.
    “He actually anticipated developments such as a Siri-like level of cooperation from our household objects, where they loved us and shaped themselves around our needs,” Portello said. He published a short story in 1995 in Sirius Visions about the first female MLB player.
     During Swagel’s time at the Sentinel, one of his more memorable adventures came in 1988 when he was invited to Vladivostok in the Russian Far East, to attend a gathering organized by the Conference on Security and Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific Region, shortly prior to the fall of the Soviet Union. In the 1990s he made a second trip to Vladivostok with his then 14-year old daughter Maria and several other Sitkans, to follow up with more stories about the changing economic climate.
     “Will’s grandparents were Russian Jewish from Odessa and he was always fascinated with Russia,” Portello said. “He was really excited -  it seemed like this was a new thing, and a wonderful opportunity. ... It was glasnost, and he was excited to be a part of it. And all the more so, with Sitka’s ties to Russia.”
    The series included many of his photos. He also supplied a photo from the trip for a Newsweek article former Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke was writing on the re-opening of Vladivostok after more than 50 years.
    Swagel won awards from the Alaska Press Club for his reporting on his Russia trips, as well as enterprising feature pieces and his coverage of crime and economics. After leaving the Sentinel he continued his freelance work, writing a “Sitka People” column for the Sentinel for the next four years, and being a regular contributor to Alaska Business Monthly for more than 25 years.
    “Writing about Sitka was one of Will’s favorite things,” Portello said. “While he wrote dozens of fine articles on varied statewide topics for Alaska Business Monthly, actually interviewing just people in Sitka and telling their stories was something he loved. People would come up to him on the street years later and speak with tremendous fondness of the way he portrayed them.”
     Also during the 1990s, Swagel traveled twice to Amsterdam, to explore the social and harm-reduction policies, and wrote a series of articles that were published in the Anchorage Free Press. He interviewed Dutch citizens and wrote about their experiences with cannabis, hard drugs such as heroin, an inside look at the red-light district that lived side-by-side with the city’s oldest church, and how some Dutch parents approached teaching their teens about adult matters.
     Portello said over the years Swagel became known for his even-handedness, in reporting about such sensitive and multi-sided topics as timber and fishing. His fairness got attention and generated respect, she said, and led some officials to ask for his assistance, for example, in chairing the committee to name Keet Gooshi Heen. He felt like he was representing the kids as well as the adults, and the name had to be something they could pronounce and spell.
     Swagel and Portello bought the Sitka Soup publication in 1998. He was the bi-weekly’s publisher, plus the creator of, and main contributor to, Our Town - a column about everyday life in Sitka, with an often-unexpected sense of humor.
    “I think he liked feeling like he was serving Sitka and Sitkans,” Portello said. “This goes for the Kids Page and the locally-oriented crossword, as well. Will put a great deal of thought into these.”
    Among his other writing projects was “The Bight Before Christmas” – a rhyming maritime parody of “The Night Before Christmas” Swagel first wrote in 2002. The poem ran for several years in December editions of Our Town and was read out loud at community events. Then, in 2009, Swagel collaborated with Sitka artist Colin Herforth on a self-published book of “The Bight” with Colin’s original watercolor paintings as illustrations. There were two printings of the book, both done by Alaska Litho in Juneau.
    “The book was very much a family-and-friends effort, with contributions to the final design and layout by Rachel Ramsey, DJ Robidou and our daughter Hannah. Although it was often billed as a ‘children’s book’ we found that it seemed to delight the fishing community as much as anyone,” said Portello. “Will was also very proud of the fact that it was printed in Alaska – all-in-all, it was a very satisfying experience.”
     Swagel is survived by his wife, Suzanne Portello; daughter Maria Portello-Swagel, her husband Phil Hophan, and their children Isaac, 12, Oliver, 7, and Peter, 4, of Half Moon Bay, Calif.; daughter Hannah Portello-Swagel and partner Alix Remes of Vallejo, Calif.; and sisters Roberta Swagel and Diane Potter, Diane’s husband Bill Potter, and their adult children Rachael and James Potter, all of Kittery, Maine.

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