Loyette Swanson (1930-2023) at age 91 in 2022. (Photo contributed by family)

Thousands of Springfield elementary school students were introduced to the joy of singing and were encouraged to incorporate music into their lives by Loyette Frances Swanson.

Loy, as most called her, died April 25 at age 92. She left a legacy of almost three decades of choral teaching in Springfield public schools and even more years as choir director at local churches — plus legions of friends and extended family with whom she shared activities ranging from camping in the wilderness to attending operas and symphony concerts.

Loy was born in Kansas as the only daughter among five sons of a hardware store owner in the small (population 2,000) town of Marion near Wichita. Her outgoing personality was evident early, says Patsy Merrill, who moved to Marion at age 10 and gratefully recalls meeting Loy.

“I was the new girl in town, and I had to go into the fifth grade class and be introduced to a whole roomful of strangers,” says Merrill, who now lives in Overland Park, Kan. “Loy was the one person who came up and told me her name, and said that she wanted to be a friend of mine. 

“We rode our bikes all over town, we went on picnics, we went on hikes, we went swimming — we had fun and just grew up together.

“We went all through the rest of grade school and all of high school together, and we continued to stay in touch through the years. She really was a true friend.”

Loy Swanson as a toddler with Maurice, the only of her five brothers who was younger than her. (Photo contributed by family)
Loy Swanson was a graduate of Marion, Kan., High School. (Photo contributed by family)

After high school, Loy attended the University of Kansas and Wichita State University, earning a degree in music education. She also earned the admiration of another music major, Kenneth Swanson. They parlayed their new diplomas into teaching jobs in Marion, and they married during their three years together there.

On a vacation to the Ozarks in 1955, they were impressed by the Springfield public school system in addition to the beauty of the region. Kenneth stopped in at the R-12 offices and inquired about a job. He was promptly hired as a band and orchestra teacher — and Loy was offered a position as well.

“But she told them that she wanted to get pregnant and start a family,” says daughter Kris. “And so I was born in ’56.”

Within a few years Kris was joined by brothers Eric and then Karl. 

“Mom gave up her career to raise the three of us because that was most important to her,” notes Karl. “She was at home with us until I got into first grade. Once I was going to school full days, she went back to school (to Drury College, now University), got her master’s degree, and went back to teaching.”

Loy had kept her hand in the profession to a limited degree by serving as the choir director at then-new King’s Way Methodist Church for the congregation’s first 10 years. Then in the mid-1960s, she took a similar position at Westminster Presbyterian Church, where she served for 25 years. Eventually she joined St. John’s Chapel United Church of Christ and sang in the choir there until age 89.

When she rejoined the professional world with a day job as a music teacher in the 1960s, Loy was one of only three elementary school vocal instructors in the R-12 system. 

“So Mom had something like 25 schools that she had to go around to,” says Kris. “She would get to each one about once a month. Over the course of time, more vocal teachers were hired, and so she had fewer and fewer schools to visit and could get to each one more often. By the time she retired in 1992, Jeffries Elementary was her only school.”

As a Springfield Public Schools teacher, Loy Swanson had her photo taken every year along with students. From left to right are school portraits taken in 1977, 1984 and 1995. (Photos contributed by family)

As might be expected for children of two music teachers, the Swanson kids were musically inclined.

“More like we were forced to be musically inclined,” says Kris with a chuckle. “Mom started all of us on piano at home, and then sent us to professional lessons. About the time we were in the fourth grade, which was when Dad had his students choose their instruments, they had us do the same thing. Eric chose the trombone, and Karl and I chose the violin.”

Karl eventually switched: “I was never very good at the violin. When I was in seventh grade at Cherokee Junior High, I was like third chair — way down. And that was at an age when a boy playing the violin didn’t go over well among his peers. I got made fun of by kids I ran around with. 

“So I came home one day and told Mom and Dad, ‘I really don’t want to play violin anymore.’ They said, ‘OK, but you have to play something. Pick another instrument that you think you’ll like better. Well, I wanted to play something nobody else plays — so I said ‘The bassoon.’” 

Karl ended up being first-chair bassoonist in the Cherokee and then the Kickapoo High School orchestras, and in the Springfield Youth Symphony. “Of course, there wasn’t much competition with the bassoon,” he says.

Music led to full-ride scholarships for three children

However, the important point in that progression for Karl — and in similar progressions for Kris and Eric — was that the enforced musical training paid off handsomely with full-ride scholarships when they got to college.

“Our mom and dad didn’t have a lot of money, being schoolteachers, so the scholarships were great,” says Kris. “Karl and I went to the University of Missouri in Columbia, and Eric went to North Texas State, all of us on full scholarships.”

While all three young Swansons played in their respective college orchestras and other school-related musical groups, they didn’t all pursue music as adults.

Kris majored in forestry management and enjoyed a 35-year career with the U.S. Forest Service, and is now back living in Springfield. Karl earned a civil engineering degree and works in the oil and gas industry in Houston, Texas. Eric, who also lives in Texas (Fort Worth), did stick with music — he’s a longtime member of the professional Dallas Opera Orchestra.

“Mom never had to tell Eric to practice — she had to tell him to quit practicing and go outside and play,” Kris says. “Karl and I, we hurried through our homework and music practicing so we could get outside as quickly as we could.”

Loy and Kenneth Swanson in 1964, with children (left to right) Eric, Karl and Kris. (Photo contributed by family)

Enjoying the outdoors was important to Loy, too. She and Kenneth purchased a pop-up camping trailer that they towed on family vacations to faraway destinations on both the east and west coasts as well as regular stays closer to home at Table Rock Lake and the Current and Jacks Fork rivers.

Loy was meticulous in her preparations for family camping expeditions — and in documenting them along the way. For instance, in her written report on a monthlong summertime tour that ranged from Mexico to Canada in the mid-1960s, Loy recorded that gasoline averaged 33 cents per gallon, campground fees were less than $2 per night, an airplane ride through the Grand Canyon cost $39 for the five of them, and the family’s admission cost at Sea World was $17 and $43 at Disneyland.

Loy also organized family reunions at Table Rock Lake in the late 1970s. They actually started out as menfolk-only gatherings, with Loy providing the food. However, after a couple of years, the event was expanded to all members of the family, and they continued until 2015.

As with the family vacations, Loy wrote detailed accounts that prompt fond memories today.

“She documented who all was there, how old the children were, what we ate at every meal, what we did, who got hurt, what the weather was like,” says Kris, hefting a thick sheaf of papers. “We had talent shows that were really fun, gag gift exchanges, water-balloon tosses, swimming races and diving competitions. They were really something.”

‘And I never saw her get her hair wet’

Loy was an avid water skier — with one limitation:

“Mom didn’t want to get her hair wet,” explains Kris. “The water conditions had to be just perfectly smooth. She would get into the water very carefully, and after she got pulled up and skied for a while, she would let go of the rope and float down gently until the water was up to her chin. I never saw her fall. And I never saw her get her hair wet — never!”

Loy water skied until she turned 70. And she celebrated her 70th birthday by soaring aboard a hot air balloon with Kenneth, who died in 2017.

Loy seemed to always be busy with something, her kids and friends say. She volunteered to deliver Meals on Wheels for several years, and she entertained nursing home residents by playing piano and singing. She made quilts for her five grandchildren and presented them to each on their wedding day.

“She never sat still,” says Kris. “I don’t remember my mother ever sitting down and watching TV. Even on Sunday nights when the Walt Disney program came on and the rest of us were watching, she would read, knit, play the piano, prepare food for the next day.”

Loy encouraged her kids to learn new skills and pastimes. In the kitchen, for instance, all three offspring learned how to make and bake cookies. 

“She would let us experiment around, which probably wasted a lot of ingredients,” says Eric. “I learned how to make bread and peanut brittle.”

Kris, meanwhile, learned how to sew from Loy. “She made all my clothes. Then at some point she said, ‘Now you’re going to learn to do it.’ So we’d go to a fabric store and pick out a pattern and cloth. Then she’d help me cut it out and sew the pieces together. At first she often had to rip out what I’d done and do it over right. But eventually I got the hang of it.”

Both boys played sports and, says Eric, “our mom was constantly taking us to baseball practice and football practice, in addition to all the band practices. One summer I took art lessons, and she lugged me over to this woman’s house every Saturday so I could learn how to paint. Anything we wanted to do, she usually supported it.”

That included organizing a Bluebird scouting troop for Kris, and taking her to ballet lessons.

Karl is especially grateful for one trip: “I was thinking about becoming an architect. We had a cousin who was an architect in Kansas City, and my mom suggested we go talk to him, to find out what architects do and to see if it sounded like something I’d really want to do. She arranged for us to visit him and drove me up to Kansas City.

‘All because my mom arranged that meeting’

“He told me that being an architect is great, but that the market for architects at that time was really down; for some reason there wasn’t a big demand. But, he said, engineers are in big demand. He said I might want to consider being an engineer. ‘You’d be working with architects because architects depend on engineers,’ he said. So I became a civil engineer — all because my mom arranged that meeting and drove me to Kansas City for it.”

Loy loved ballroom dancing, and she and Kenneth for many years participated in local dance clubs. For many years they partnered with another couple, Jan and Glenn Thomas, at dances.

“We met Loy in the church choir when we moved to Springfield in 1963,” says Jan Thomas. Like the Swansons, the Thomases both were teachers — Glenn was a music instructor and Jan was an elementary classroom teacher. “Loy and I retired the same year, and after that we were in a ‘lunch bunch’ group together. The four of us played in bridge clubs. On New Year’s Eve, we’d play bridge, then pour champagne and give a toast at midnight.”

The two couples also traveled extensively together. Loy signed them up for several Elderhostel (now rebranded as Road Scholars) excursions in the U.S., and they took cruises to Alaska, the Greek isles, Scandinavia and around Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America.

Another friend who enjoyed activities with Loy is Jane Bennett, who encountered her 20 years ago on her first day of water aerobics class at a local fitness center. 

“I met Loy as I was walking in, and I asked for her help to get situated,” Bennett recalls. “Over the years she got me involved in P.E.O. (Philanthropic Educational Organization, which aids women with scholarships), Springfield Symphony, Little Theatre, the Opera Guild (now Ozarks Lyric Opera) and bridge. We went to many events together.”

A special memory for Bennett: “One year on my birthday, she sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to me on the phone.”

Loy’s childhood friend, Patsy Merrill, says their relationship stood the test of time.

Loy Swanson when she was a teenager in Kansas. (Photo contributed by family)

“In high school there was a group of eight girls who were very close friends. You know, when a bunch of girls get together, they may argue some. Loy was always happy, always smiling, and she worked to keep everyone happy and not have any trouble.

“We remained friends all of our lives. Loy had such a beautiful voice, and she sang at the weddings of all seven of us other girls. She and I were the last two left – and now I’m the only one. But I have wonderful memories…” 

Mike O'Brien

Mike O’Brien is a longtime newspaper reporter, editor and columnist and is also a college journalism educator in Springfield. To suggest a person who might make a subject for Lives Remembered, email him at LivesRemembered@sgfcitizen.org or obriencolumn@sbcglobal.net. More by Mike O’Brien