W. John Swartz

Graduation Year: 1956

Degree at Duke:
Bachelor of Science

Major/Program:
Mechanical Engineering

Career Highlights:

  • Former president of Atchinson, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway Co.

Children are easily amused by automation. Young boys love playing with toy cars, train sets, and airplane models. Most decide right at age five that they are going to be train conductors or airplane pilots. Normally, however, the childhood fantasy does not blossom into an adulthood reality. For only a few, trains and planes play an important role in the future of their lives.

W. John Swartz’s, former president of Atchinson, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway Co., interconnection with railroads and trains continued beyond his childhood days. Although the corporation’s name specifies only railroads, Santa Fe is a multi-industrial company which has holding company work in oil, gas, real estate, pipeline, and timber. It opened its doors over a half a century ago, and is now the largest independent (not refined or retailed) producer of oil in the country.

Obviously, becoming president of a company does not happen overnight. Swartz has a long, prosperous career with Santa Fe which merely culminated with this honor.

In an effort to illustrate his childhood ‘molding’ and his illustrious career, we will take a trip backward — through the years of W. John Swartz’s life.

Swartz was born in Kansas and grew up during the Depression. Being the son of a school teacher, his family moved to a series of small towns throughout Kansas. By the time Swartz entered high school, his family had settled down in Kansas City, Kansas. During high school his interests included tennis, football, and debate.

The time finally came when he had to decide which college to attend. For some, Duke is a natural choice; for others, including Swartz, it is an accident. Swartz was quite uncertain as to which school he should attend. He won a Navy scholarship, which he could avail at any one of 52 universities. He flipped through a list of universities alphabetically and found that Duke seemed to meet his requirements in a university: it was far away, the curriculum was appealing, it was a reasonable size, and it seemed like a nice school.

After being accepted, Swartz hopped on a bus to North Carolina with his duffel bag in hand, waiting to see what the first days at Duke would hold for him. Prior to orientation, Swartz never visited Duke, and was pleasantly surprised by the offerings of the university. “Duke had a very friendly student body; I found it easy to make friends.”

While at Duke, Swartz successfully ran for president of his freshman class, chaired different annual events including parades and Dad’s Day, participated in intramural sports, and maintained membership on the Student Union Board of Governors. He was also a member of the Tau Beta Pi fraternity.

In 1956, Swartz graduated with a Bachelor’s of Science in mechanical engineering, and prepared to enter the Marine Corp. When viewing his education at Duke, Swartz explains, “As far as engineering is concerned, I think my classmates and I were well prepared.”

He added that the basic approach to problem solving was a key segment of his education — learning how to manipulate concepts and solve problems have been necessary skills throughout his career. As for the downside of the curriculum, “I wish I had received a broader liberal arts background, [specifically,] more English [and other humanity] courses after all, you use English all your life...”

Further, since many engineers go into the management side of companies, some basic background in business would have also enhanced his education. “The more business background you have, the faster you can make the transition from the technical side to the management side.”

After completion of his undergraduate degree, Swartz married his high school sweetheart, Dorothy. Their wedding was one of the spectacular Duke Chapel weddings that every Duke student admires as he walks across the quad.

From 1956 to 1959, Swartz was stationed at Quantico and the Pacific where he served as a combat engineer. These three years constituted some of the quietest years in American history, for this time period was before the Vietnam War and after the Korean. Although he once considered a career in the military, after being sent to Quantico to teach, Swartz decided that it was time to move on.

Consequently, he enrolled in law school at George Washington University. Swartz started out in the patent law field, but ended up enjoying labor law more. When recollecting those years, he says, “I loved law school. I was intellectually happiest during this period.”

The conclusion of law school provides the beginning of an illustrious career for W. John Swartz. There was a notice on the placement board searching to hire lawyers for the Atchinson, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Co.’s corporate law department. After receiving a position with the company, Swartz planned to continue with them for five years or so, and then move on to ‘bigger and better’ things.

As fate would have it, one cold winter day after five and a half years of work at Santa Fe Railway, Swartz’s boss came into his office and offered him an opportunity to attend the Sloan School Program at MIT in order to receive a master’s degree in management, thereby providing him an opportunity for promotion in the company. The new president of Santa Fe Railway was interested in upgrading, and Swartz’s previous educational background coincided with the president’s desires to initiate a new management development program. Therefore, after a year at MIT, Swartz began a second career in general management finance, including recruiting, in- house management, and personnel development. Two years later in 1969, he became the Assistant Vice President of Personnel.

From this point on, Swartz did not rush or become impatient. He worked his way up in the company by climbing the ladder one rung at a time until he reached the top. His positions included: AT&SF Assistant Vice President of Executive Department in 1972, AT&SF Vice President of Administration in 1977, Santa Fe Industries (SFI) Executive Vice President in 1978, AT&SF Executive Vice President in 1980, SFI President in 1983, Santa Fe Southern Pacific Corp. (SFSP) Vice Chairman in 1983, and AT&SF President in 1986.

Naturally, all careers have their tremors. Fortunately for Swartz, all the tremors were controllable through quick, decisive business transactions. In retrospect, Swartz has no regrets about his career. He feels it was quite satisfying right up until his retirement on January 1, 1990. He was glad he left the company when he did, for he did not want to be known as an old president with old, stagnant ideas. “Too many people die in their job or use up all their ideas before they’ll leave.”

On the other hand, he’s glad that he left the company in a positive status. He explains, ..... I enjoyed the period I spent bringing new people into the company... [I feel certain that] when I retired I left a lot of good people there to progress the company.”

On a personal note, John Swartz has been married to Dorothy Swarzt for 35 years. Mrs. Swartz graduated from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She is a commercial artist whose earnings supported John Swartz when he was completing his law degree, but now constitutes a hobby in her life. The Swartz’s have two children John and Jeffrey. John is 28 years old. He completed his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering at MIT and is currently completing his doctorate degree at Duke. Jeffrey is 26 and is presently working in San Francisco as an editor for technical manuals. He completed a degree in math and computer science at the University of Illinois.

Some of Swartz’s hobbies include travel, tennis, biking, and bridge. He and his family are also involved in student exchange affairs. They enjoy acting as a second family for different students who go to Chicago for an education.

Now Swartz and his wife enjoy the peace and comfort of retirement. Recently, they took a trip to South America, and plan on partaking on other journeys in the near future. However, before one can enjoy all the beauty and serenity life has to offer, one must put in hard, labor time. “Hard work and long hours got me here. It doesn’t matter if your blessed with brains and talent. You’ll only be the best in your career if you put in time ... There are no easy shortcuts to success, certainatly not in business or law.”

Swartz paid his dues, and had a prosperous career as a reward for his hard work.

Originally published in DukEngineer, Fall 1991. Written by Lisa Oberoi, a junior in Electrical Engineering and English.