an old woman with short dark hair stands next to a piano with a floral vase on it
Roselyne “Cissie” Swig at home in 2019. (Photo/Norm Levin)

‘Cissie’ Swig: Still a visionary, always a supporter of good causes

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Part of Trailblazers, a series of profiles of Jewish men and women who build and sustain our Jewish community, supported by a generous donation from Carol and Norman Traeger.

With sweeping views of the San Francisco Bay from her art-filled Presidio Heights home, philanthropist Roselyne “Cissie” Swig easily could have settled into nesting at this stage of her life.

But no, the energetic 88-year-old continues to serve on numerous nonprofit boards, develop social service projects and get out and about. Widely known locally as a staunch supporter of the arts, she is an impactful donor and board member of prestigious institutions such as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Contemporary Jewish Museum and the San Francisco Art Institute, to name just a few.

She’s also down in the Bayview, working with community members and leaders to strengthen the area — which she likens to “the old Jewish neighborhoods where people have lived for years and there’s a sense of belonging.”

And she’s talking to agencies in the city about starting a mentorship program for older adults needing vocational retraining. “It’s awful not to feel valued,” she says of those who’ve lost their jobs. Her idea is the end result of her year as an Advanced Leadership Initiative Fellow at Harvard in 2013. Though Swig could have merely audited classes, she chose to get critiqued and graded. “It was joyous,” she says of going back to school.

Two years later, she went to Bellagio, Italy, where she lived in a villa with 12 others as a Rockefeller Foundation policy fellow. The task: Write about a topic of your choice and present it to your colleagues. Swig chose “know thyself” — which she calls her mantra.

“I decided that I really wanted to go deep into those two words. What is self-knowledge? Is it knowledge that somebody else tells you, or do you have to go within yourself” to find it?”

She pondered and she wrote. “It was a wonderful experience.”

Swig has a cerebral side, for sure. But don’t think for a minute that she leads a cloistered life.

She enjoys traveling — there’s a trip to Cuba with her son, Rick, on her calendar — and she’s recently back from Patagonia, where she loves to go fly fishing.

Her other favorite angling destination is in Idaho. She “sort of backed into” fly fishing after her husband, Richard Swig, died in 1997 at 72.

“I was looking for something that I could do outdoors, in a pretty place, with technical proficiency that I could learn. I just needed a guide.”

She’d been taking her daughters to a Montana guest ranch, but after she gave up horseback riding, a friend suggested fly fishing. “I took some women’s classes, and I loved it,” says the petite octogenarian.

She goes fly fishing (strictly catch and release) summer and winter, usually accompanied by daughters Susan or Marjorie of San Francisco, or Carol, of Idaho.

Swig cherishes spending time with family — many of whom remain in the Bay Area — and is “very close” with her four children, 12 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Swig grew up in Chicago amid a large extended family. “There was always — and still is — an emphasis on valuing family, being concerned about family, and I think that transfers to how you deal with the general community. It was very basic. I feel very fortunate about that.”

Philanthropy was instilled in her from an early age. “It’s sort of a lifelong involvement,” she says. “As a child, there was always an opportunity to give to the March of Dimes, or give to the Boy Scouts, to give to something. My parents encouraged me.”

The family moved to Los Angeles when Swig was 16. She met her husband on a blind date when she was a student at UC Berkeley. They married a year later.

Soon after, Swig got involved at the S.F. Art Institute, which “was a springboard to opening lots of windows to the future,” she says. Swig began “focusing on educating the public on how important it was to support the artists and understand their needs.” She started a fine arts consulting business, finding artwork for clients and teaching them about the artist. “That led to much of what I’ve been doing” in more recent years, says Swig, who believes that “artists are being valued today at a much higher level” than in the past.

Swig had been interested in art since her teen years. “I had an opportunity to be involved in the Chicago Art Institute,” she relates. “I think that motivated me into my late teens and 20s.”

Beyond her devotion to the arts, Swig has spent decades supporting women’s empowerment, social welfare, political advocacy and education and other worthy causes. She has received numerous honors, including the Lifetime Achievement Award from the San Francisco Arts Commission in May 2013, which prompted then-Mayor Ed Lee to proclaim the day as Mrs. Roselyne C. Swig Day in San Francisco. In 2015, JCRC awarded her the JCRC Jewish-Civic Leadership Award, and in 2017, she received the Changing Lives Award from Shalom Bayit.

A former president and current board member of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, she somehow finds time to serve on prestigious boards including the Jewish Community Relations Council, AIPAC and the Shalom Hartman Institute. She also serves on the president’s council of the United Religions Initiative, an interfaith organization striving for world peace.

Swig goes to Israel at least twice a year.

“I value my Judaism,” says Swig, a longtime member of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. “I feel I’m very, very lucky to have this Jewish background. I appreciate the value system that it automatically incorporates. I feel I came to be a better person by virtue of my Judaism.”

Swig finds pleasure in giving, and “my husband felt the same way.”

They “absolutely” tried to pass that on to their children. “It’s not a matter of telling them or asking them,” Swig explains. “It’s a matter of doing. … It’s not a have to, it’s more of a want to.

It appears they succeeded, through the generations.

Grandson Adam Swig, for example, recently was honored at a luncheon by the Irish-Israeli-Italian Society for strengthening the young adult Jewish community through engagement and charitable acts. In his speech, he said his grandmother was his philanthropic role model.

Fellow honoree and CJM executive director Lori Starr was moved by Adam’s tribute.

Starr knows Cissie Swig well. Swig, who chaired the CJM board for years and still serves, “was the principal person in making this building happen,” Starr says of the striking, Daniel Libeskind-designed structure. Swig helped shepherd the modest Jewish Museum into a contemporary art space that beckons Jews and the population at large.

Starr calls Swig’s thinking “bold, on the cutting edge of new” with “that needed pinch of pragmatism … She was one of the premium funders for the project” and “the people connector” for funding.

Swig is “a visionary but also a make-it-happen person, and that is very rare,” Starr adds.

Swig stepped down as CJM president in 2010. “She identifies talent and lifts that talent up and mentors them,” says Starr, who considers Swig a wise friend and valued trustee.

“She’s a humanitarian,” Starr says. “It all comes back to her neshama, her heart, all that is good in the world.”

From her volunteer days at Mount Zion Hospital in San Francisco, working in the coffee shop (“I used to pride myself on my root beer floats”), to the present, Swig considers herself “very lucky” to still be pursuing her passions.

“I’m very curious. I like to feel that I am involved in life — and hopefully improving it, or bringing others in to improve it. And I enjoy it. It keeps me busy,” she says.

Another benefit: “The friends you make” along the way. “That’s a treasure … because each one of those friendships teaches you something. You offer yourself, and somebody offers back to you.”

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.