Dan Swecker, a former 20th Legislative District Republican senator, Purple Heart recipient and pillar of the local Christian community, died this week. He was 74.
The Army veteran and farmer served in the state Legislature from 1995 to 2013, when he was unseated by current Senate Minority Leader John Braun. During that tenure, he served as the Republican Caucus vice chair and assistant majority whip, focusing his efforts on issues of transportation, agriculture and religion.
Online, Swecker’s son Joel reported that his death was “a quiet and peaceful exit from this world,” with family present.
Swecker suffered several health complications throughout his life, undergoing multiple surgeries after his time in the Vietnam War and dealing with heart issues. Toward the end of his life, his wife Debby Swecker said her husband began to lose mobility, later catching a flu.
Her husband’s heart, Debby Swecker told The Chronicle this week, “was larger. And it was more kind and more loving.
“And I think that if Dan could say anything, he’d say that he wants to use his passing to tell people about the Lord as much as he lived his life to show them. He wants Jesus to be glorified in both his life and death.”
A devout Christian and founding member of the Centralia Christian School Foundation, those who knew Swecker said his faith informed his personal and political life.
“I always tell people, I don’t like politicians, but I like him,” said Joel Swecker, who works at the same fire department his father used to volunteer at. “He said ‘stick by your morals and ethics even if it’s the unpopular belief … even if it meant a condemning article in the paper, or going against your party.’”
Daughter Amy Hockman echoed the sentiment, saying her father always “stood up for what was right.”
She described Swecker as an attentive father and grandfather. When Hockman fell ill, he helped raise her daughter, Audrey. She recalls him watching “Curious George” with his many grandkids, taking them for rides on his UTV and teaching Audrey how to carve soap into tugboats and Easter Island heads. He attended nearly every game and event of his grandkids, said daughter Jenny Matthews.
“I know there are so many people who looked up to him, just like we did, and they’ve all come out of the woodwork,” Hockman said. “We’re just feeling so loved by them.”
According to Debby Swecker, Dan became religious in his 30s, long after the pair met at Evergreen State College, drawn together by their conservatism.
Their convictions came after his service in the Army, where he was “sprayed with Agent Orange for two years solid,” Debby Swecker said. According to earlier reporting by Chronicle columnist Julie McDonald, Dan Swecker spent his 21st birthday in active combat in Vietnam. There, he took shrapnel to his leg, crash landed and took gunfire to his helicopter.
Only in his 60s would he be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Dan Swecker’s legislative successor, Braun, cited his service in Vietnam in a statement this week, saying “I always respected Dan for his decades of service to our state and nation, and will remember him as a good, kind and gracious man.”
In a conversation with The Chronicle, Braun added that “he was very humble about the things he did, his service to our country.”
Dan Swecker’s Army service, paired with business struggles upon his return, would turn him toward the Lord.
“We’re grateful for those struggles, because they bring you to a point where you realize you really can’t do life without the Lord. So that was a real blessing in a really ugly wrapper,” Debby Swecker said.
The couple went into the fish farming business together, although Debby described near-impossible permitting requirements dragging the business to the ground. Dan declared, “we can get bitter or we can get busy.”
The experience drove him to politics, with the goal of streamlining permitting processes.
But Dan Swecker got perhaps the most press attention as a leading opponent of gay marriage, co-sponsoring Washington’s original 1998 Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as between a man and a woman. Swecker remained outspoken against domestic partnership bills that granted same-sex couples more rights, including 2009’s Referendum 71, which was also opposed by 66% of Lewis County voters.
He also spent much of his time on transportation issues. Although his spending and gas-tax support proved an issue in his final campaign, he’s credited with Interstate 5 enhancements as well as a much-needed traffic light at a deadly Mossyrock intersection.
Matthews said having a dad in politics wasn’t always easy. He turned the other cheek more often than she wanted him to, “and man I wanted to take offense for him sometimes, but it wasn’t worth it, and the people who knew him knew the truth.
“Business was hard. Politics was hard. Vietnam was hard. And he was tough and tender,” she said. “He could stand up when he needed to and draw a line when he needed to, but so often he brought people together … he was who he was because of the Lord and his extraordinary partnership with my mom.”
His former legislative assistant, Ruth Peterson, said the lawmaker was always busy meeting with as many constituents as he could.
Peterson first met Dan Swecker in the aftermath of the 2007 flood, when she asked him to help address a communication breakdown between volunteers, victims and aid workers. Within a few months, she said her future boss had worked with U.S. Cellular to expand coverage to the Boistfort Valley.
“He was just that kind of person. He would drop everything,” she told The Chronicle.
According to Peterson and former county commissioner Edna Fund, Dan Swecker was the one who got ahold of the governor during the flood, quickly securing helicopters to airlift people off the roofs of flooded homes.
“Many people don’t know that,” Fund said, adding that her close friend would never brag about such a thing.
Lewis Economic Development Council executive director Richard DeBolt credits Dan Swecker for his own success, saying the “true servant leader” and his family took him under their wing during his first legislative campaign. DeBolt was just 28 years old.
“He didn’t have to do that. He was running his own race, and his race was hard as well,” DeBolt said. “He was a great role model for people to see what it’s like to be a good Christ follower and a good leader all at once … he’ll be missed, and we need more people like him.”
Dan Swecker is survived by his wife Debby, four children and their spouses Jenny (Travis), Joel (Amy), Devin, and Amy (Andrew), as well as seven grandchildren Braden, Logan, Madison, Claire, Emma, Audrey and Noah. He also leaves behind his mother Clarene, three siblings and his stepmother.
A memorial service is scheduled at 2 p.m. Friday, Sept. 17, at the Centralia Community Church of God.