The Way We Were: Michael Swann

The Way We Were: Michael Swann
Michael Swann talks with Sally Ferris, left and his wife, Susanne Swann, after the service at St. John’s Cathedral.

From playing baseball at Lakeside Park or fishing with the boys at Fishweir Creek as a youngster, to now, walking the streets as a human billboard advertising the Cathedral District Project during Art Walk, Michael Swann’s love for community runs deep. 

Swann’s outlook and life priorities have been molded by the connections he’s made with people in his formative years – with family, extended relatives, and the neighborhood kids and their families – that he played with and learned from in his Ortega hamlet.

“Everything happened around Herschel Street and San Juan Avenue for us kids growing up in the area,” said Swann. “This was in the ‘60s when kids played outdoors together until sundown – cowboys and Indians, baseball, football, tag – it was always a fun time, and we didn’t need to go anywhere but here.”  

They gathered for impromptu games at Lakeside Park or at the Fishweir Elementary grounds. “Every time we hit the ball, we’d hope it didn’t hit a tree and ricochet out into street, which is why we eventually moved our games to Fishweir,” said Swann.

Swann and younger sister, Pamela, were raised in a two-story red brick home built by his grandfather, W.L. Taylor, on Herschel facing Palmer Avenue (a dirt road back then), across the street from Lakeside Park.  They were both born at St. Vincent’s Hospital and walked or rode their bikes to Fishweir Elementary with neighborhood friends, which was, “sometimes hard getting over the bridge without stopping to look at the water.”

As children, they came to live in their grandparents’ home because it ended up being empty most of the time.  A railroad engineer, their grandfather was gone a lot. Then their grandparents divorced, and Grandma Theresa went to California, got married and stayed there until after WWII.

When Grandma Theresa and her new husband returned to Ortega, they built their home on Lakeshore Boulevard on the St. Johns River. The property included a small efficiency house above the boat slip on the river.  All of Swann’s extended family lived on the same street or a few blocks away and so, in spite of divorces and new relationships, everyone got along spending holidays together and enjoying barbecues on the river.  

“Our families have been in Northeast Florida and Southeast Georgia for many generations all the way back to owning property from Spanish land grants,” said Swann.  Even Hilliard, Florida, is named after his great-great grandfather, C.W. Hilliard, an early settler and property owner north of Jacksonville past Callahan where the US FAA-Jacksonville Air Route Traffic Control Center is now. 

Swann’s mother, Florence, and his uncle, Buddy – both joined the U.S. Army after high school in the early 40s. Florence, who was called “Billie” since she was a kid because of her tomboy ways, was known for climbing the Callahan creeks to watch snakes fight while her red hair would be all a-blaze in the Florida sun. “All 5-foot-2 of her wouldn’t take nothing off nobody,” Swann said.  

Stationed at Fort Patrick Henry and assigned as a truck cargo transporter, it seemed fitting that his mother’s main assignment was carrying prisoners captured by the U.S. Navy to various Army camps, with a Thompson machine gun and pistol at the ready.  It was there that Billie met her husband, Hayward Swann, originally from Tennessee. 

As a youngster, Swann’s affinity for anything mechanical became evident as he would get into trouble for taking lawnmowers and other kinds of equipment apart. This eventually carried over to his love of cars and working on them as a teen.  Swann said he got his mechanical talents from his dad, who started out as a diesel mechanic and advanced to become the Southeast Maintenance Superintendent for Greyhound Bus Lines.  

In the early years, Swann and his life-long best friend, Jack Lowe, who lived one house over next door – Swann’s great grandmother lived in between – found early freedom through biking and boating. On the weekends, they’d bike ride to far-away woods, to an area where Orange Park Mall is now, and camp out overnight, making up all kinds of crazy games. They were not a bit afraid of all the critters’ night sounds, Swann said.  Since Jack’s father was a boat builder, the boys’ friends and their dads would take Jack’s father’s boat out to the “island,” which was actually Cedar Creek, and fish until dark.

Swann, his sister, and their neighborhood friends attended Lakeshore Junior High School the first year it opened, instead of John Gorrie Junior High School where his mom, uncle, and grandparents went. However, they did follow in their elders’ footsteps by attending Robert E. Lee High School.  

Like most teen boys in the early 70’s, life centered around cars and the freedom and lessons learned from them – saving up for a used car, fixing cars, looking cool driving souped-up cars, and drag racing. To earn money, Swann said he would unload freight at the Greyhound bus station and cut grass. 

Michael Swann dressed for turkey hunting in South Carolina

“All of us kids combined our knowledge, and we could fix anything with Dad as a back-up, if we messed-up,” said Swann. “Kids today will never know what it feels like to be free and have real bonding fun the way we did.  You learn independence, resilience, and decision-making skills when figuring out things on your own.”

In the 70s, everyone hung out at the Krystal’s, either on San Juan Boulevard or Downtown on Main Street, with the northside challenging the westside teens.  They would race on a paved section of Route 295 that was already laid from Roosevelt Boulevard to 103rd streets. Swann would be in his dark blue ‘57 Ford Fairlane, which he would eventually replace with a ‘67 midnight blue Mustang. “It was a great dragstrip for us when many streets were dirt and the bridge was still under construction,” said Swann. 

Swann also raced officially as a member of the National Hot Rod Association locally and in Gainesville. His favorite car was his 1977 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am, which was similar to the gorgeous black and gold legend featured in “Smokey and the Bandit.” 

After high school and a stint studying history in college, Swann’s tinkering ways led him to apprentice as an industrial mechanic at T.P. Herndon Company, a firm owned by his step-grandfather. There he installed and serviced large machines and pumps that carry water, refinery oil and, sometimes, liquid oxygen. 

Swann later worked as a contractor for big pump companies installing and servicing their field operations, which resulted in lots of U.S. travel and the opportunity to make many new friends.  “A lot of it was fixing routine screwups like the installation or valves put in wrong or installing the fuel tanks and pumps for new gas service stations,” said Swann.  

He had married his first wife and the mother of his two daughters before starting contractor work, and they initially made their home on the river in the efficiency above the boat slip behind Grandma Theresa’s home. Although the marriage didn’t last, his children have fun memories of their many adventures, including their sleuth strawberry-picking nights after Swann bought a home in Cedar Hills.  Back in the 80s, land around 103rd Street was still uncommercial with large strawberry fields where the Walmart Superstore is located now.

When Swann married his second wife, Karen, he became a stepfather to two girls.  With a new family and his own two children to support, he returned to working with Granddad Herndon’s company so that he could stop traveling and focus on family.  

One interesting project Swann was a part of in the 80s was the installation of fuel tanks below water level at the bulkhead near Harbor Master’s Restaurant, a riverfront restaurant on the Southbank which is now River City Brewing Company.  The project was to have fuel available for boats to fill-up at the marina. “This involved pumping out water using a well-point system, installing the pumps and building a wall around it,” said Swann.

Swann was also a superintendent for Refined Metals Corporation for four years before joining the newly created predictive maintenance team for the St. Johns River Power Park when it was first formed to interpret machine-life reliability for the plant to run without interruption.  Despite his years as a mechanic, Swann started as a journeyman mechanic, then was selected to contribute to predictive maintenance analysis using such tools as computers, vibration analysis, thermography (infrared red) and ultra-sonics – any machine that could look through steel through heat signature or vibration analysis – and predict where there might be a leak inside the boiler.  

“Everything we did had to be certified, we were constantly tested to keep certification, and our recommendations were reviewed by engineers,” said Swann. “It was an incredible 20 years of working with the best mechanics in the world until retiring in 2007. 

Michael Swann holds great grandson Cason James Head, whose mother is Haley Trimble Head, at an outdoor event.
Michael Swann holds great grandson Cason James Head, whose mother is Haley Trimble Head, at an outdoor event.

“Man is known by the work he does and people he works with, and I feel I’ve worked with the best there is,” continued Swann about his days at the power park.  “When they knocked it down on June 16, 2018, everyone cheered except the people who worked there because it was part of us. You could see those towers all over the city, and it was even a navigation landmark at sea for boats coming here. I hated to see it go, but life goes on.”

Swann’s wife, Karen, had retired from the Veterans Administration Office just before him, and although she had several serious health issues, they bought the motor home they had dreamed of and began traveling all over the country.  Sadly, in 2013, while in Colorado Springs, Karen passed away. The couple had been married 35 years. After Karen’s death, Swann did the only thing he felt he could do – return home to the Jacksonville where all his kids are.

After a friend reminded him of a woman with whom he took a history class at the local community college so long ago, he reconnected with her at a coffee shop in San Marco, and they reminisced until dark. They have been together ever since.  His third wife, Suzanne, grew up in Arlington and continued her studies, earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Florida and a master’s degree in public administration from the University of North Florida with a career in local and state government. They married at St. John’s Cathedral in 2015 and have remained active in the church by volunteering for the Cathedral District Project. 

Although Swann and his wife love living in St. Nicholas, his heart rests with the landmarks and kids he grew up with on the Westside and the memories of all his adventures.  Most of his neighborhood friends have passed, including his best friend Jack, although he does stay in contact with Jack’s two daughters.  

Today, Swann’s immediate family includes 15 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, with most living in northeast Florida.  “I’ve always lived by my mantra, ‘If it’s not fun don’t mess with it,” he said. “My life has truly been a fun journey with, hopefully, more roads to experience.”

By Christina Swanson
Resident Community News

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