Patriarch Richard Swig: He was just larger than life

In the pre-dawn darkness Thursday of last week, Rabbi Stephen Pearce got a phone call. His congregant and friend Richard Swig was in the last stages of life following a long battle with heart disease; the rabbi's presence was requested at the hospital.

When Pearce arrived at San Francisco's California Pacific Medical Center, he found a deeply moving scene. Swig's wife, four children, grandchildren and close friends had gathered around his bedside. Tearfully, they hugged and touched him, holding and comforting each other as they bid goodbye to Swig and reminisced about his life.

"I walked away strengthened by that scene," said Pearce, rabbi of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. "To witness a family pulling together with such deep devotion to the patriarch was touching. It was a tribute to him and to the power of family."

Swig, chairman of the S.F.-based Fairmont Hotel Management Company and a philanthropist in both the general and Jewish communities, died just hours later at age 72. He had undergone a heart transplant approximately six weeks ago and appeared to be making steady progress before he died of a sudden infection.

He left a formidable legacy of community involvement, having served as trustee, chairman or board member of more than 40 charitable, professional and educational institutions.

"There are a few people I've met over my years in community work who are just larger than life," said Wayne Feinstein, executive vice president of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. "He was one of them."

Swig had long been involved with the federation. In 1991, he and his wife of 47 years, Roselyne "Cissie" Swig, headed a mega-mission that took 350 Northern Californians to Israel just after the Gulf War. Later, he chaired the 1995 annual campaign.

"It takes a lot of time and effort for a volunteer to chair the annual campaign," Feinstein said. "He had the energy of a 30-year-old. He dove into it and did a great job."

Feinstein and others describe Swig as an impassioned motivator who guided others by example.

A recipient of numerous awards, including the Mahatma Gandhi Humanitarian Award, the Golda Meir Award and the City College of San Francisco's President's Award, "Dick was the kind of leader who would never ask you to do something he hadn't done himself," Feinstein said. "That's a critical distinguishing characteristic."

Naomi Lauter, executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — in which Swig served as a national board member — has similar memories.

"I'd listen when he'd be soliciting someone for something he cared about, like the Jewish federation or a candidate coming to town," she said. "It was never, `You do it. I don't need to do it.' He was always there doing it too."

In addition to AIPAC and the JCF, other Jewish organizations that benefited from Swig's leadership included Israel Bonds, the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Museum San Francisco, American Friends of Hebrew University and the American Society for the Technion University-Israel Institute of Technology, which awarded him an honorary fellowship in 1995.

"He was very proud of his Jewishness and very much aware of [his] responsibility as a Jew to reach out to help others," his wife said. He shared his pride in his history and culture with friends in the general community. "I think they appreciated the values he lived by."

The Swig name — long associated with the posh Fairmont Hotel, where Swig began as a steward in 1946 and which the family is now trying to sell — is equally synonymous with community involvement and philanthropy. Family members have long supported causes ranging from Democratic politics and the arts to education and the Jewish community.

In addition to Jewish causes, Swig supported secular organizations including the Coast Guard Foundation, Fromm Institute for Lifelong Learning, Leukemia Society of America, University of Santa Clara and University of San Francisco's McLaren School of Business.

But despite his far-reaching contributions, Swig preferred to shun the congratulatory spotlight, according to Pearce. "He didn't do it for reward or praise. He did it very quietly," the rabbi said. "He was a self-effacing man. He really only wanted to do his share in making life better for a whole lot of people."

Swig was born in Boston to the late Benjamin and Mae Swig. On a trip to San Francisco in 1945, the elder Swig, a real estate investor, purchased a hotel, sold it at a profit and bought the nearby Fairmont on Nob Hill. Thus began the Swigs' migration west and the family's prominent position in the hotel business.

After serving in the navy during World War II, Richard Swig, alongside his late brother Mel, began a decades-long career at the Fairmont, which became the jewel in the crown of the luxury hotel chain. At the hotel, where many employees affectionately called Swig "Papa" and where flags flew at half-staff for a week following his death, Swig had a hands-on approach to grand hospitality, according to his son Rick.

"He did not live in an ivory tower," his son said. "He made it his business to be scrupulous about knowing what was happening in every department — not just with regard to dollars and cents but with regard to the health and welfare of each and every member of the staff."

At a funeral for Swig Sunday, well over 1,000 mourners packed the main floor of Congregation Emanu-El's sanctuary. Pearce led the memorial; among others who paid tribute to Swig were Emanu-El's Rabbi Helen Cohn, the Rev. John Schlegel, president of USF, and family members and friends.

In addition to wife Roselyne "Cissie" Swig and son Rick Swig, both of San Francisco, Swig is survived by daughter and son-in-law Susan and Richard Watkins of San Francisco, daughter Marjorie Swig of Greenbrae and daughter and son-in-law Carol and George Sedlack of Sun Valley, Idaho. He is also survived by brother-in-law Richard and wife Joan Dinner of San Francisco; sister-in-law Tobey and husband Allen Moss of Los Angeles and sister-in-law Miriam Handel of Anaheim. He left behind 12 grandchildren, who knew him as "Poppy."

The family asks that contributions in Swig's name be made to the American Society for Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, Attn: Jack Kadesh, 870 Market St. #1222, S.F., CA 94102; the Jewish Museum San Francisco, 121 Steuart St., S.F., CA 94105, or the charity of your choice.

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.