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Prime Time: Esther Swanker's community service spans decades

Friday, May 10, 2013
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Esther Swanker is pictured at her home in Niskayuna.
Esther Swanker is pictured at her home in Niskayuna.

— Esther Swanker has a reputation as a problem solver.

The longtime president of the Schenectady County Public Library Board of Trustees navigated a difficult course in the politically sensitive issue of expanding the library’s main branch, which was finally opened last July.

During her long career, she has tackled everything from helping to rewrite a federal education bill in the mid-1960s to designing the renovations for the former Our Lady of Fatima Church in the mid-1990s.

Swanker said if the library expansion were ever finished, she would retire from the library board. She has followed through on that promise — stepping down last summer.

While she has closed one chapter in her career, she wasn’t done with community service. Swanker was promptly scooped up by the board of miSci, the renamed Schenectady Museum — because of her association with the Golub family through her service on the Ellis Medicine board.

“I would not like to be idle. That would bother me terribly,” she said in an interview at her home.

Although Swanker has had a lifelong love affair with books, she almost wasn’t a librarian.

After graduating from Syracuse University, with a bachelor’s degree in English, Swanker eyed a career as an English teacher, but for a time worked for General Electric Co. to help rewrite engineers’ articles for publication into something a layperson could understand.

She then applied for a teaching position in the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake Central School District. However, the principal thought she would be a better fit elsewhere.

“He needed a librarian and never even considered me for English, for which I am grateful,” she said.

She said the job was pretty easy and she was able to relate to the children.

“I could talk their language. I could find books for them that they enjoyed. We got along well,” she said.

Swanker attended college classes in the evening and during the summer to earn a master’s degree in library science from the University at Albany.

After about four years at Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake, Swanker was lured to the Schenectady City School District to take charge of their libraries with the promise of a bigger budget.

“We brought a librarian into every library in the school system,” she said.

Move to state job

After a few years there, Swanker said she was “kidnapped” by the New York State Education Department. The commissioner at the time wanted her to lobby for the federal government in the writing of the Title III education bill.

She worked closely with Hugh Carey — then a congressman — on that bill and then he asked her to join his staff after his election as governor in 1974. Carey wanted her to stay on for the second term, but her mother-in-law wasn’t well at the time and Swanker wanted to work at a state agency with more regular hours where employees went home at 5 o’clock, she said. She was offered her pick of jobs and chose to be assistant commissioner of the Department of Transportation.

“They were an agency that did things. They didn’t just push papers,” she said.

When she first arrived, there were no women on road crews — a violation of the law.

She began putting women on the crews and got a call about six months later from a regional administrator, saying that one of the women showed up for work in a miniskirt and a see-through blouse.

“The regional director was furious. She was tying up traffic in four counties,” she said.

Swanker told him to tell the woman to go home and change into something more appropriate and if she ever came in dressed like that again, she would be fired.

Esther retired from the state in 1985 and returned to her first love — books — and was appointed to the Schenectady library Board of Trustees.

“Can you imagine anyone being sentenced to 27 years on the library [board]” she said with a laugh.

Proud of project

Her proudest accomplishment was the completion of the library project after a long process.

“We had a lot of people involved in the decision making. They didn’t all have the same opinion. It took us about eight or 10 years to finally get everybody to a point where they could agree,” she said.

The initial plan would have involved closing the library for a year and a half. After the public balked, the plan was revised.

Library Director Karen Bradley said Swanker had the political savvy to navigate these tough issues when it was difficult getting the parties to agree. Swanker approached things with a business-like attitude.

“It’s just get the job done, stay the course, move things forward, helping to facilitate that along,” she said.

Swanker was also a key fundraiser, according to Bradley.

“She was instrumental with meeting so many groups in the community and making a pitch out to them to be involved in this very worthwhile initiative,” she said.

Swanker remains confident in the future of her chosen profession.

“A lot of people think libraries are going to wither and die because of all the technology. I think the librarian and other technical people are very effective at adapting technology to people’s needs,” she said.

The most difficult part will be convincing elected officials of their continued value, according to Swanker.

Patroon honor

For her lifetime of service, Swanker in January received the Patroon Award — Schenectady’s highest honor — from Mayor Gary McCarthy.

“She’s just an all-around good person that I think has always put the higher idea of Schenectady goals as her focus. She has tried to improve the community and the lives of the people around her,” McCarthy said.

Swanker said she was kind of surprised that she got the Patroon Award because she doesn’t live in Schenectady anymore. She moved to Niskayuna five years ago because she needed a house with more room for caregivers helping her ailing husband, Henry. He died a few months after the move.

Swanker said she likes accomplishing tasks and improving situations that need improvement and enhancing women’s rights.

“It’s been very rewarding. I’ve enjoyed the people of Schenectady. They want to do right. They want to have good things for themselves and their families, and I think the elected officials are trying their best to provide that for them.”

 
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