Remembering Bob

He tried to teach me to play the guitar.

Which was a futile gesture. I have no musical ability. None. Not a bit.

But Bob knew how much I loved music. We listened to it, talked about it, exchanged albums and books, and were passionate about good music. It was a foundational part of our friendship for four decades.

Unlike me, Bob could play and sing. He did so, in groups, and at home, where he would pick up one of his guitars and play a tune, his dark eyes closed as he expertly selected the next string, his high voice matching the song perfectly.

That was just one of his talents. He also was a good photographer who had an extensive camera collection. He read voraciously, and we shared magazines, books and newspapers, discussing and debating politics, science, religion and so many other topics for hours and hours.

We laughed, a lot. Life was absurd, and the flow of events proved that on a daily basis. Over drinks downtown, in his home when I visited, and on the phone when I was living in another state, we talked, laughed and shared ideas.

I’m going to miss all that so much.

Bob Swinson was a dear friend for four decades. The Brookings resident, who came here from his native East Coast with his beloved Cindy, another precious friend, wasn’t a South Dakota native. But he came to adore her native state and never wanted to leave.

Now, he never will. Bob died at a Sioux Falls hospice on Sunday, Feb. 10, six days after he and Cindy had celebrated their 41st wedding anniversary. He had beaten back lung cancer, but chronic obstructive pulmonary disease seized hold of him and his departure was sudden and unexpected, catching scores of friends by shock.

I met Bob at SDSU and we became close quickly, as happens in college. A small group of friends spent a tremendous time together, and four of us, Jim, Bob, Pat and myself, graduated together in 1982. All three of them were slightly older than me and had served in the military before coming to SDSU, so they were often amused by my naïveté and youthful enthusiasm.

I moved away after college, but returned on a regular basis to visit family and friends. I often stayed with Bob and Cindy, and we had hours of talks and laughs, as I detailed my wandering adventures and he and Cindy settled in Brookings.

Bob was a man of diverse interests and talents. He worked for South Dakota Public Radio, doing a jazz show at night and recording great live music that he played on his show.

Bob traveled the state, almost always with Cindy, preserving the sound of South Dakota’s best performers.

He also played in groups, and I was fortunate enough to see them take the stage at private shows around Brookings. He was modest about his abilities, but he shined and the other musicians both liked and respected him.

His thirst for knowledge was bottomless. Bob loved to learn and to discuss it with others.

Brookings is filled with bright, thoughtful people, and Bob engaged in numerous discussions with his friends, many of whom looked up to him and respected his dedication to facts and logic.

He and Cindy and their friend Fedora Sutton started a program, Science at the Pub, at Jim’s Tap in downtown Brookings. It offered in-depth, intelligent programs on a weekly basis. It was a perfect project for him.

He was always great with my family. Bob came to our farm to hunt back in 1980-81 and met my parents and siblings, who were delighted by his wry humor and good manners. He got to know Dad better after Mom died and would talk with him when they ran into each other in Brookings.

Bob liked people. He had a quick smile and a good heart. I will miss both.

I have had to get used to missing people, losing close, close friends like Roger, Jim and Ted in the last decade or so. I never imagined them gone from my life, not so suddenly.

Cindy said Bob knew his time was fleeting. They had left their home and moved to an apartment. Bob had given away most of his cameras and turned over Science at the Pub to someone else. I last saw him at another friend’s memorial service in September. There was a tube in his nose providing him oxygen, but he seemed largely unchanged. We talked and laughed and sipped a drink before I headed home, not realizing I should have lingered that night.

Life passes quickly. That’s why it is so important to find people you want to be with, who bring you joy and make you happy, who try to teach you to place your stiff, untalented fingers on the elegant neck of a guitar to evoke music, even when you both know it’s a fruitless effort.

I will miss Bob, but I sure will remember him. Always.

South Dakota native Tom Lawrence, a former Pioneer executive editor, has written about the state, its politics and people since 1978. Read his blog Prairie Perspective at and follow him on Twitter at @TLCF26.

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