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'Renaissance man' led diverse, active life

Dawn Law
| Sunday, May 27, 2001, 12:00 p.m.

Involved in photography, sailing, aviation and prison reform, Lester Swaney was a man of many hats.

He learned early in life that much is accomplished by sheer will and determination.


Lester L. Swaney of Point Breeze died Saturday, May 26, 2001, from congestive heart failure. He was 78.

'I find myself doing things I never thought I'd be able to do because of his enthusiasm and strong will,' said his wife, Gwen Swaney.

The son of a bank president from East Pittsburgh, Mr. Swaney attended Culver Military Academy in Indiana in the late 1930s, and later Shady Side Academy in Fox Chapel.

At 17 he joined the Marine Aviation Corps and eventually served in the Pacific theater of World War II as a navigator aerial gunner on fighter planes.

There he befriended Tyrone Power and flew with the Hollywood actor on a leisure trip to Australia, his family said.

In the 1960s, he became a state welfare caseworker, and in 1975 he began working for the prisoner release program through the Salvation Army on the South Side.

Mr. Swaney also was active in a Salvation Army program that provided Christmas toys for children of prisoners and another that allowed American Indian prisoners to visit with a shaman, his family said.

He loved sailing and captained his own 16-foot racing sailboat until two years ago. He was a co-founder and the first commodore of the Duquesne Canoe Club in Verona and helped reintroduce river sailing in the area, his family said.

Mr. Swaney was a freelance photographer, shooting images for travel magazines and newspapers. He also specialized in photos of American Saddle Bred horses prevalent in Kentucky and Tennessee.

He met Gwen C. Chenoweth in 1947 at the University of Pittsburgh Ski Club, and the couple married in 1951, two years after he graduated from Pitt.

Gwen Swaney said her husband had been a fantastic skier and was skilled at woodworking, crafting prize-winning wooden hobby horses.

His daughter, Chris Swaney, said her father was a ''Renaissance man'' and her mentor, who believed in the phrase 'carpe diem' - seize the day.

'He had the wisdom to care and the courage to believe,' Chris Swaney said.

His industrious manner is reflected in the accomplishments of his children. His son, Timothy Swaney, is a horseman and corporate pilot, and his daughter is also a free-lance photographer.

Chris Swaney sat staring at her father's camera - a big format Hasselblad - and said she hopes to learn how to use it.

She knew what her father would say to her.

'Figure it out,' she said. 'Don't quit.'

Mr. Swaney is survived by his wife, Gwen C., of Point Breeze; daughter, Christine S., of Point Breeze; and son Timothy C., of Cranberry Township, Butler County.

A memorial service will be held in the Homewood Cemetery Chapel at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday. Funeral services by Rowland S. Cooke Funeral Home, 210 E. End Ave. Memorials may be made to the University Club or Animal Friends, Inc., 2646 Penn Ave., Pittsburgh PA 15222.

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