Perry Swisher died the other day at the age of 88. Older Idaho media and political types have been publically reminiscing about that otherwise obscure event for the last few days. Since I knew him for more than 40 of his years, guess I’ll join the chorus.
To most of you, the name Perry Swisher won’t mean anything. But, to some of us who knew him, he’s been a constant – or a constant irritant – in all our lives. For better or worse. Read on and you’ll know why.
Swish was the most curious son-of-a-bitch I ever knew! Bar none! This description of the man purloined from the Lewiston Tribune by Ridenbaugh Proprietor Randy Stapilus tells you why I say that. “As a journalist, legislator, gardener, guru, crusader, advisor to the mighty and the molested, critic, bard, counselor wondrous, administrator, confessor, orator, pundit laureate and consummate pain in the posterior…” Well, you get the idea.
If something – anything – caught his attention that he was unfamiliar with, the next time you saw him, he’d know more about it than you. It might be a radical new scientific theory or a new species of bug in his garden or anything in between. People with that kind of personality trait are rare. You can’t teach it. You got it or you ain’t. He had it in abundance.
It’s hard to say if the man was your friend. Or you were his. It was a word he almost never used and he didn’t act like one much of the time. In the traditional sense. Drunk or sober, he’d jump all over you during one encounter, then support your point at the next. He had no patience with people he thought were fools and – when alone defending some arcane “fact” – he thought most around him fit that description on occasion.
In the 60′s, he’d often come into a Pocatello watering hole late in the evening, followed by a couple of local sycophants, take up his station in a corner booth and hold court till closing. Local politicians or media types wandering through the place during his “office” hours would almost always stop. For the uninitiated, that scene could give you the wrong idea of what the guy was all about.
He ran for office as a “D” and an “R” and an “I” with various success. He served in both houses of the Idaho Legislature and ran for governor. That run for governor as an “I” was one of the few mistakes in his political life but he did it because – at the time of his decision – neither major party candidate would support a sales tax referendum he and others had worked for several years to get before voters.
When the Democrat candidate was killed late in the 1966 campaign, his chosen replacement had also labored to get the tax issue on the ballot. A real believer. Swisher was asked to withdraw lest he split the vote and cause the Democrat to lose. But by then, Swish would not back down. Commitment? Maybe. Ego? Maybe. Swish lost. The Dem lost. But the sales tax won.
That moment seemed to be a turning point in his life. Though he later served another term in the legislature, he seemed to pay more attention to his journalistic career than being active in politics though he wrote many political columns and editorials, served as a political appointee and kept his lifelong interest in all things political.
Swish had the most permanently unchanging personality of anyone I’ve ever known. If you knew him as I did – from his 40′s through his 80′s – his frontal attack on issues and the passion of his views never changed. If he DID go from one side of an issue to another, he’d defend the new view with the same outspoken zeal. Whatever the subject – whatever the point – he was into it 110%.
Perry Swisher was one of those few people you run across who left an impression on everyone. Good or bad. No shades of gray. In my experience, he seldom sought out anyone to associate with. But many of us sought him out. We did so because we always learned something. He was brusk and sometimes rude. He was short-tempered and could be riled over something simple. He could – and often did – say things others might have thought but also thought better than to say. He could wither someone with profanity-laced anger if he thought you were a fool.
But, especially in his later years, he could teach. The man could teach. If you wanted to learn – really wanted to learn – I never saw anyone more anxious to keep pushing a person to learn. A new skill. A new experience. A new viewpoint.
Whether we said so – whether we even admitted to ourselves it was so – many of us looked to Swisher for help in understanding more about the world around us.
I think he’d be proud if we added the word “teacher” to that list of adjectives used to describe him some 30 years ago. And that’s a pretty good legacy.