Debbie Cutler | Special to The Oak Ridger
It is not so unusual to see an Oak Ridger live to be 100 (more or less disproving the glow in the dark with radiation theory). What is super extraordinary about one Oak Ridger who is about to do so — on Tuesday, March 8 — is that she continues to live in her modified “B” house, goes out for a walk almost every day in the neighborhood (only requiring a walker for the last couple of years), prepares her own meals, and converses with family and friends with the wit and intelligence of a 20-year-old.
Meet Marjorie “Marge” Swenson. Her sharp mind, quick smile and joyful attitude is the envy of almost everyone who knows her. This article is meant to celebrate Marge’s century on this planet and share her insights into her own longevity. Mostly, she said, it is how she grew up.
Born in Pipestone, Minnesota in 1922 to Eugene and Alice Clark, Marge grew up on a farm. She learned early the value of families spending quality time with one another while also working hard to get through difficult times. She had an older brother, Larry, who was born with medical issues, so she grew up helping to care for him as one of her primary tasks. She later cared for her husband’s mother and aunt and her own children. She then helped neighbors in need, worked for home health (mostly with senior adults), and then for her brother again, later in life. Finally, Marge cared intensively for her husband toward the end of his life. She said she believes that connecting with people and treating them well is vital to a person’s well-being. Keeping children in your life also helps to keep you young.
Tip: Caring is not just a physical action; make it part of who you are.
Marge met husband-to-be Paul as her lab partner in a biology/anatomy class at Hamline University in St. Paul. He joined the National Guard and moved around for training. Letter writing became a way of life. They married in St. Paul in 1942, after only a few actual dates. Not long after, Paul received orders to serve his country for the U.S. Army in World War II. Marge was later notified by the War Department, by letter, that Paul was seriously wounded. His recovery and rehabilitation took many months of hospitalization and Marge did not get to visit him during this time. Not only could she not afford to travel, she was also doing her part in the war effort by working in a Honeywell factory soldering parts, and then moving to care for his mother in California. Many more letters were exchanged. After Paul finally made it back home, he gave his meat ration book to Marge and his mother — telling them that he had been given penicillin and steak every day in the hospital and it was time they got to have the steak!
Tip: Learn to make do with what you have and enjoy. Life moves on!
Some of Marge’s happiest times were being outside in nature, starting with her brother Larry when they were little. She had to be active when young as she did live on a farm after all, and she truly did have to walk one and one-half miles to her one-room schoolhouse, collecting her fellow classmates along the way.
She enjoyed many scenic road trips with Paul in their 1931 Ford that they bought for $100 cash. With Paul’s graduate studies continuing at Stanford University, that meant many fun trips to the coast and other parks. Marge earned her degree in 1948 at San Jose State, traveling 30 miles by bus each way. Stanford was too expensive, whereas San Jose State tuition was only $7 a quarter. In 1950, the couple went cross-country again when Paul accepted a faculty position at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. They bought their first house there for $9,000, and their two daughters were born: Marie in 1955 and Carol in 1958. Life was happy, yet change was to come yet again.
Paul finished up his Ph.D. at UMass while teaching and also did research during sabbaticals to Brookhaven National Laboratory and then to Oak Ridge National Laboratory in 1958. Marge and family came with him to Oak Ridge and they rented an E-2 apartment, loving their time here — so much so that they chose to return for good in 1966.
Paul gained a full position at ORNL and the family moved to Oak Ridge into a modified “B” house, where Marge has lived ever since. In addition to walks in the greenbelt, camping became an even more frequent and favorite pastime for Marge and her family. She loves taking in the sun (and the stars) and always appreciates the beauty of the natural world around her. Today, she goes outside for the sheer joy of it (and the exercise). She regularly admires the trees and flowers people plant in all seasons. She is happy that no matter which way she walks, there is always a garden to greet her at the top of a hill.
Tip: Enjoy the outdoors and appreciate nature!
Leading a healthy lifestyle has also been a lifelong endeavor that began in her youth. Eating a good diet was perhaps easier on a farm than elsewhere, but Marge loved to prepare healthy food for her family and for others in many situations over the years. She fed Paul and his fellow graduate students — more than 20 — in California during summer learning adventures and, together with other “faculty” wives, she hosted progressive dinners that she said were tons of fun. Today, her eyes light up when offered fruits and vegetables from our own farmers’ markets (especially the fresh carrots), and she is so very thankful for the friends, family, and neighbors who bring her soups, breads and other treats to enjoy.
Tip: Eat healthy and appreciate any and all help with a smile! Extra tip: Feed people and make them happy!
Marge grew up reading everything and anything she could find. She read the newspaper from an early age and still gets the Oak Ridge and Knoxville papers delivered. She has always felt that it was important to be informed. The more you are aware of, the better you are able to help or speak out, if and when needed.
One of the things for which Marge says she is most proud of relates to a people story, of course. Not long after she was in Oak Ridge, Marge became involved with the group called CORE — Congress of Racial Equality — that met in the Scarboro community. She participated in demonstrations (with her children in tow) to ward off a Ku Klux Klan turnout at a local laundromat that refused to serve Blacks and later changed their policy. She then agreed to help again in addressing a similar disparity issue related to housing equity. Thanks to her willingness to make calls and testify as to her findings, people trying to find apartments and housing in Oak Ridge were met with less discriminatory practices. Way to go Marge!
Tip: We are all just people. Be kind and caring to all!
Throughout her life, Marge has been a volunteer, giving of herself to others. This was particularly true in her church, the Oak Ridge Unitarian Universalist Church (ORUUC). She has served as Sunday School teacher, board member, treasurer, greeter, and Care Committee member extraordinaire.
Celebrate with her
She is so loved by her ORUUC friends that they are holding several special celebrations to honor her. On Saturday, March 12, a celebration outside is planned from 2 to 4 p.m. Stop by, see her smile, hear her laugh, meet her family and oh, if she could just give you a hug, she certainly would.
When asked about some final advice that she would want to pass on in this article, she wrote the following:
- For work/career: Do your best. Be careful and be trustworthy; and, know that not everything can be made perfect, but can be improved.
- For attitudes and beliefs, she considers these most important: Change is a necessary part of life. Be aware. Make improvements when possible. All experiences are valuable, whether good or bad Be a friend. Understanding others is valuable. Cooperation is a necessity, so is a positive attitude and approach; Focus on others. Find a way to be of
- help to them as needed. Enjoy the natural world. Nature and people are important for happiness, and, be grateful.
And I am grateful. For getting to have Marge in my life as an inspiration, neighbor, and friend.