The world lost a giant in affordable housing with the passing of Ted Swisher on July 8 after an on-again, off-again struggle with cancer. I was privileged to call him a friend, and Santa Fe was lucky to have him in our midst since 2006.
Without Swisher, 72, Habitat for Humanity International would not be the organization it is today. In 1983, his friends Millard and Linda Fuller recruited him to come work in Americus, Ga., for Habitat, the faith-based nonprofit they formed in 1976.
The Fullers met Swisher in the early ’70s when he spent a summer internship from Princeton University at Koinonia Farms, an intentional community formed in Georgia in 1942 to fight for social justice and combat racism in the South.
Ted, a lifelong Pittsburgh Steelers fan, was not privileged Princeton student, having gotten to the Ivy League from a hardscrabble town in western Pennsylvania via his ability to wrestle. After college, he was back at Koinonia, and he was its executive director by 1976.
He was key to the growth of Habitat. His first mission was to expand chapters from 23 when he started to over 1,700 by the time he left the Georgia headquarters in 2005. When the Fullers retired in 2005, Swisher was the No. 2 person in the organization and presumed successor for the top spot.
For whatever reason, the board of directors at the time decided differently and Ted was passed over for the promotion many insiders believed he deserved. He walked away and made his way to New Mexico, where he first found work managing subdivision construction for a huge publicly traded builder, which was not a good fit, and later at the city of Santa Fe in its affordable housing office.
That was a better fit, but bureaucracy was not Ted’s strong suit; motivating volunteers and helping families was where he excelled. When Maggie Monroe-Cassel, the former head of Habitat’s Santa Fe chapter, made the surprising discovering that Ted was ensconced at City Hall, she made concerted efforts to convince him to come back into the Habitat fold when she retired.
Which he did.
When Ted retired from the local Habitat for Humanity chapter, I wrote a column, comparing his presence here to New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick moving to Santa Fe to coach the Capital High School Jaguars.
(Ted probably would have preferred a comparison to Chuck Noll, the coach of the great Steelers dynasty in the ’70s and ’80s.)
A favorite Ted story of mine was him finding a Santa Fe Habitat memento in the hills above Cow Creek outside Pecos.
As a board member, I’d been given a fleece vest with Santa Fe Habitat’s logo on the chest. I kept it at our cabin on the creek for people to wear on chilly fall hikes in the hills. My daughter’s boyfriend at the time borrowed it and accidentally left it where the two stopped for lunch on a hike. It was lost forever.
Two years later, Ted asked if he and a couple buddies could use the cabin for a weekend fishing retreat, something he loved maybe even more than helping families into home ownership. Of course, I said yes. Well, the fishing wasn’t so good, so the guys decided to explore a bit of the wilds in the hills above the creek.
After a couple of hours of hiking they decided to take a break — exactly at the spot where the vest had been left. It was tattered and unwearable, but the logo on the chest was still intact.
Ted saw it as a sign. I did, too. Rest in peace, my friend. Your beautiful spirit will always have a home in the waters of Cow Creek.