I saw Donna Swaim chatting to Dick Tomey at a long-ago Arizona football practice and asked someone who she was.
“I think she’s his attorney,” I was told.
I saw her in a McKale Center corridor, hush-hush, talking to Luke Walton.
Who is that, I wanted to know?
“I think she’s Luke’s grandmother,” was the reply.
But Donna Swaim wasn’t a ballplayer’s grandmother or an attorney at all. I saw her walking off the football field with center Paul Tofflemire. I saw her standing with NBA lottery pick Mike Bibby in a parking lot. I saw her walking into McKale Center with NCAA swimming champion Annie Chandler.
Finally, I asked the right person. UA associate head basketball coach Jim Rosborough told me that Donna Swaim was everybody’s friend.
“I don’t know her title,” he said. “But she’s a very important person on this campus.”
For years I would check the UA athletics staff directory, in media guides and online, and never did I see Donna Swaim listed anywhere. Maybe it’s because they didn’t now how to properly label her role.
Counselor? Advocate? Professor? Confessor?
She had everybody’s ear. During Arizona’s reign as the nation’s No. 1-ranked basketball team last season, she persuaded Nick Johnson to absorb an ancient Chinese poem about archery.
“It says, ‘If the archer shoots for a golden prize, he becomes mad and blind,’ ” Swaim told Johnson.
So after the Wildcats lost to Cal and ASU and fell from No. 1, Johnson stopped Swaim near the Jefferson practice facility.
“He told me, ‘Donna, now I’m looking at the process, not the golden prize,’ ” she said. “It made me joyful.”
For 22 years, Donna Swaim has been part of the UA athletic department as a “Faculty Fellow.” Unless you are part of academia, you don’t know what that means. Donna Swaim says it means “my sole responsibility is to be there for the students.”
Or rather, was to be there.
Swaim retired last week. She was cleaning out her office in the old Harvill Building early this week and said she plans to do the same with her McKale Center office soon.
Becky Bell, who operates the CATS (Commitment to an Athlete’s Total Success) program, told Swaim that even though she is vacating the office, there will always be a chair for her.
In 50 years at the UA, Swaim has been a clinic lecturer in the College of Medicine; a senior lecturer in Religious Studies; a Faculty Fellow for Native Student Affairs, a poet, part of the Humanities faculty and the English department. If you’re ever on the third floor of the Student Union, you will see the “Donna Swaim Honors Lounge.”
“Donna is a communicator, someone you can trust,” says Rosborough, now a volunteer tennis coach. “Our guys confided in her.”
She worked with Salim Stoudamire on his communication skills. He went from an oft-brooding, don’t-ask-me-any-questions media subject to one who, as a senior, became open and insightful.
When the Final Four was played in Atlanta in 2007, Stoudamire bought up-front tickets for Swaim and her husband, Tucson architect Robert Swaim.
When Swaim became desperately ill in 2003, in need of a liver transplant, UA basketball player Justin Wessel told Swaim he wanted to be tested as a potential bone-marrow match.
When Swaim tells the Wessel story now, 11 years later, her eyes water.
“I got a lot more out of these young men and ladies than they’ve gotten out of me,” she says. “It thrilled me whenever they would walk through my door, sit down, and open up. I always wanted them to see themselves outside the athletic arena.”
Channing Frye sent her poetry. A.J. Bramlett included Swaim’s name on a T-shirt celebrating the 1997 national championship basketball team. When football place-kicker Alex Zendejas missed an extra- point kick in 2010, leading to a painful loss to Arizona State, it was Swaim who mentored him.
“People were very unkind to Alex,” she says. “I was adamant he would be able to look back on his days as a football player in a positive light. And I think he does.”
Former UA associate athletic director Kathleen "Rocky" LaRose created Swaim’s role inside the athletic department. It was Tomey who tapped into it; he would tell his players that he used Swaim as a confidant and encouraged them to do the same.
Swaim grew up on a Nebraska farm, earned a Cornhuskers degree and, at 80, goes out as one of the all-time Arizona Wildcats.
The list of UA athletes who have told me how much they appreciate Swaim’s open-door policy goes on and on. All-America gymnast Katie Matusik praised Swaim’s friendship. Quarterback Matt Scott was an office regular. Basketball manager Jack Murphy, now the head coach at NAU, made sure that Swaim had a seat near the team locker room so players could give her their traditional postgame embrace.
In Swaim’s Religious Studies 307 class this year, former UA football lineman Jack Baucus created a class project in which the students would write on a gravestone how they wanted to be remembered someday.
On his headstone, linebacker Tra’Mayne Bondurant wrote:
“When I finish packing, I’m going to take those gravestones home with me,” Swaim says. “It will remind how full of life these young people are.”