Hugh van Swearingen is a very lucky guy.
When I retired at the tender age of 55, one of my colleagues at The Associated Press in Portland told me, “Hugh, you just won the rat race.” I feel like I did.
I’m now 78, well into geezerdom. What a blessing it is to live long on my own timeclock, in relative good health and with lots of interesting things to do, places to go, people to enjoy. There’s rarely been a dull moment.
I got into journalism because I flunked calculus. If you can’t hack math, there is no chance you’re going to be a physicist. I always loved science and wanted to be a physicist. I thought that would be a fun and interesting way to make a living. Anyway, I ended up getting a college degree with majors in English and political science. I landed a job as a newspaper reporter. For me it was exciting. I think I was a born ambulance chaser.
I started out at the Lewistown Daily News, moved on to the Montana Standard in Butte and then to the Missoulian where I was state news editor. I joined The Associated Press in Helena in 1968. That was the start of a 25-year career with AP. In my early years I did a lot of governmental reporting in Montana and North Dakota. I moved up the ladder, served nine years as bureau chief in Helena and then seven years as Portland bureau chief responsible for our operations in Oregon.
I often regretted going into the management ranks. Reporters and photographers have all the fun. Bureau chiefs have all the headaches. That’s not to say news reporting is all fun and games. Far from it. It’s tough, demanding and exacting work performed under pressure of competition, relentless deadlines and scowling editors.
The news business was in my blood from back in grade-school days growing up in Great Falls. One of my brothers and I sold the afternoon Great Falls Leader on downtown street corners. Papers cost us two and a half cents each and we sold them for a nickel. Sell a hundred papers during a couple hours after school and pocket $2.50 profit. Good money for a kid back then.
During my college years I worked summers and sometimes other months at the Anaconda Co. copper refinery in Great Falls. Jobs there paid decent union wages that helped get me through school. I also lived a couple years in the Los Angeles area. One of my jobs was working for Douglas Aircraft Co. assembling components for military missiles.
Throughout life I have enjoyed the outdoors: hiking, camping, fishing, hunting, floating rivers. Perhaps most fun of all for me was time spent exploring remote southwestern desert canyons on foot in search of ancient cliff dweller ruins.
Now I’m living in Townsend and enjoying life with my partner Nancy Marks. I am the proud father of two daughters and two grandsons. One daughter is a registered nurse in Missoula and the other a certified public accountant who is now a full-time mom in Helena. The grandsons are in high school.
I moved to Townsend 12 years ago, in 2004, with my wife Janet. She died of a heart attack eight years ago while on a cross-country skiing vacation in British Columbia with several of her longtime friends.
I recently retired from the board of directors of Townsend Health Systems, which governs Broadwater Health Center. I was on the board for seven years. I joined Rotary four years ago. I am active in the Democratic Party and am a member of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Northern Plains Resource Council.