This is all you need to know to understand what kind of person Bill Swope is: Before I could even shake his hand to unofficially kick off our visit at Morningside Heights earlier this week, he looks me in the eye and says, "Hey, how's your daughter?"
Two months removed from a crash that nearly killed him, this giant of a man - battered and bruised, sitting in pain with a once-broken leg on the mend and something called a drain tube in his stomach - asks me about my daughter.
Communities need people like Bill Swope like they need trees and parks. Marshall should consider itself lucky this asset has been around here to lend his guidance, wisdom, patience and general kindness to the community for as long as he has. The fact that he was almost taken from us should remind us to appreciate him all the more.
On the morning of April 17, Swope was driving to the high school after watching his fifth-grade granddaughter perform in the Passion Play at Holy Redeemer School. He pulled up to the intersection of highways 19 and 23, on the inside lane so he could take a left onto 23.
"Saw a semi coming, you know, but it's always busy," he said. "Light turned green, I turned left and all of a sudden he hit me. I'm thankful that I really didn't look to see him coming - coulda broken my neck."
Swope has been told the driver of the semi didn't see the red light. And he says he's not angry with him, that he's happy he's alive.
Forgiveness is not a skill, it's something we possess and put to use every once in a while; this man has enough to share with the class. "I'm not upset. I'm glad nobody got killed," Swope said. "I'm blessed. I give God the credit for my being here. I'm a miracle, really."
But he was a badly-damaged miracle. After the crash, Swope was airlifted to a hospital in Sioux Falls (the helicopter was already in town - if that's not the definition of serendipity, I don't know what is) where he underwent a five-and-a-half hour exploratory surgery procedure on his stomach. The next day, it was time to take care of his damaged leg.
"The tibia and fibula were in pretty bad shape," he said. "The orthopedic surgeon said it was like putting together a puzzle. But the puzzle pieces went back together. It was touch-and-go probably for about a week or so, and I was pretty out of it."
Swope didn't want to elaborate further about his injuries. Instead, he chose, and is choosing, to focus on the positives. "I didn't have brain damage, I didn't have any pancreas damage or anything like that," he said. "My kidneys shut down so I was on dialysis for four-and-a-half weeks, but the upside is, I didn't have a brain injury or other organ injuries."
Swope was in and out of consciousness after the crash and his son, Andy, was told that during a brief time of lucidity while he was being extracted from his mangled car, he told paramedics, "I'm sorry I'm so heavy," before passing out.
Swope can now put about 70 percent of his body weight on his leg. His goal is to be home, living independently, by the end of July.
"I've been working hard trying to get better," he said. "The blessing I've got is I'm back in town. I'm four blocks from my house, Andy lives four blocks that way, my daughter lives out by Lynd, so I'm blessed to be back in town. And I've got a lot of friends."
Swope's injuries hold him back for now, but he's strong in his faith and won't let the crash steal his passion for the community and its youth. This is a man who has been involved in the lives of children here since 1979 after leaving behind his pursuit of ministry. He's been the principal of two elementary schools in Marshall (and went back again after retirement to fill in). In 2009, after retiring to take care of his cancer-stricken wife, Carol, he jumped at the chance to fill the executive director's role of the Pride in the Tiger Foundation - a major scholarship fundraising group in Marshall.
You don't lead that kind of organization if you don't have drive and vigor, and Swope does. He is a 71-year-old version of a 10-year-old - energetic, always looking for more to do. And more than energy, he has passion for the youth in the community. He doesn't just want them to succeed, he wants to help them succeed. He's delegated work for the annual upcoming Pride in the Tiger golf tournament, because that show must go on, but once he recovers, he will again fill his plate with things to do.
"Do I miss that right now? Yah," Swope said of his work with Pride. "My goal there - because I need to be connected with kids - is to go back and work as director again this fall. Yah, I miss the kids and that kind of activity, but the bottom line is I'm thankful to be alive."
Swope also seems to have his mind set on doing something to lower the speed limit on the bypass. He said the speed limit, while it drops to 35 mph in the "school zone," has bothered him for a "long, long time. Look at how many accidents there are there. There's no speed limit for semis coming through. That high school area is hazardous. If there's anything I can do to organize getting speed limit signs up I think the stretch from Highway 7 out by Southwest Coaches, we should have a speed limit of 35 miles an hour all the way to beyond the high school and college campuses. My biggest concern is the kids. We've had a kid killed on a bike going across. We've got semis coming through here like a bat outta hell."
Getting the speed limit lowered on a state highway is no small feat, but you can bet Swope will exhaust himself to do just that. He didn't like the speed limit before; the crash just gave him one more reason to fight to lower it.
"It's not OK, slow down," he said with the tone and insistence of a teacher. "It's about the safety of our citizens, our kids. It's not my accident that has made me think of this, it's a culmination of all the accidents that have taken place. We need to do it for our kids."
Once he mentioned kids, Swope's eyes got watery. Yes, he still has that passion and love. He's been slowed like a car with a flat, but while his body might never be the same, his mind, heart and soul are in mint condition.
He's still Bill.
And for that, we should all be thankful.