Remembering Wheaton College Professor Emerita of Sociology Zondra Gale Lindblade Swanson ’55 (1932-2022)
Words: Dawn Kotapish ’92
Dr. Zondra Gale Lindblade Swanson ’55
Photo courtesy of Wheaton College Buswell Library Archives & Special Collections
Wheaton College celebrates the life of Professor Emerita of Sociology Dr. Zondra Gale Lindblade Swanson ’55, who died December 23, 2022, at the age of 90. She served Wheaton College from 1964–1998, teaching sociology, serving as dean of women, and mentoring students in the Human Needs and Global Resources (HNGR) program—a role that took her to 51 countries. Her grace, warmth, adventurous spirit, and pastoral heart endeared her to students and faculty alike and secured her legacy as, in the words of President Philip Ryken ’88, a “formative influence on generations of Wheaton students.”
An admirer of the natural world, Lindblade Swanson learned how to identify the delicate silhouette of the great blue heron camouflaged against the lakeshore pines of Wisconsin’s Northwoods.
She was likewise a student of human nature, assiduously applying her trademark expertise in what she called the “sociological imagination” to individuals, families, communities, and cultures in an effort to resolve conundrums and unmask latent possibilities.
“What is camouflaged often surprises and sometimes contradicts conventional wisdom,” she wrote in “Blessed Are the Merciful,” an article featured in the autumn 1998 issue of Wheaton magazine.
During her 34 years on faculty at Wheaton College, Lindblade Swanson could often be found in every corner of campus, actively interacting with her students in the classroom and beyond. Reflecting on his “panicked and unsure” freshman year, sociology major Bryan Perry ’92 considers himself fortunate to have fallen into Lindblade Swanson’s orbit for four years when she served as his academic adviser.
Perry and Lindblade Swanson at Commencement 1992.
Photo courtesy of Bryan Perry
Perry first met Lindblade Swanson one evening in the basement of Fischer Residence Hall, where she would engage students’ questions around a conference table long after office hours had ended.
“She exuded calm and peace,” recalled Perry, who completed several of her courses, including urban sociology, gender roles, and social change. “She patiently took time to care for each of us, one-on-one, providing academic counsel but also wisdom on relationships and extracurriculars and offering coaching instead of direct advice.”
One day, an hour before the launch of an urban ministries Chapel service Perry had organized, Lindblade Swanson showed up to Edman Chapel unannounced.
“While I wrangled video technology, she quietly closed her eyes and prayed for me and the service, providing an anchor and invoking the Comforter’s peace,” Perry said. “Her initiative and calm were gifts I now recall every time I prepare for an event as a working professional.”
Perry earned a master’s degree in urban and regional planning from the University of Pittsburgh, in large part due to Lindblade Swanson’s influence, and today serves as executive director for the Great Allegheny Passage Conservancy in Homestead, Pennsylvania.
Lindblade Swanson and Vorwerk Larson in 1998.
Photo courtesy of Rebecca Vorwerk Larson
Similarly, Rebecca Vorwerk Larson ’98, an English and sociology major who today serves as Wheaton’s director of web and graphic design, cites Lindblade Swanson as instrumental to her personal and professional development.
“Dr. Lindblade Swanson had a wonderful way of challenging her students to wrestle with big questions, but always within the clear confines of Christian orthodoxy,” said Larson. “Grounded in the confidence of her mature faith, she prodded us to dig into our subject matter and not be afraid to ask more of God, ourselves, and each other.”
As Lindblade Swanson’s teaching assistant, Larson once facilitated a class discussion on the ethics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s plot to assassinate Hitler. The class concluded that even lions of the faith like Bonhoeffer did not always clearly understand the next best step in challenging times.
“This reminder of the ultimate grace, goodness, and righteousness of God has been a comfort during times when my ability to see the right path for my own life was clouded with uncertainty,” said Larson.
Lindblade Swanson developed many of these virtues through her own intrepid and Christ-infused life journey. A native of Moline, Illinois, she was born in 1932 to Lester and Merle Lindblade. Following her graduation from Wheaton in 1955, she worked with Frontier Nursing Service in central Kentucky, believing that immersion in other cultures would enrich her future work.
Undeterred by the local rattlesnake population, the intrepid budding sociologist accompanied traveling midwives on horseback and transported children with special needs by jeep, plowing through the middle fork of the Kentucky River.
She went on to earn a master’s degree in counseling from Michigan State University and a doctorate in organizational studies from Loyola University.
Throughout her lifetime, Lindblade Swanson embraced Micah 6:8: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (ESV).
Her convictions about this verse are evident throughout “Blessed are the Merciful,” in which she emphasized that studying things like social stratification and the disenfranchisement of urban populations was a “vacuous” exercise if not accompanied by a “heart cry for justice.” In serving the needs of the marginalized, she championed a self-described “reckless advocacy” akin to that which was demonstrated by Jesus Christ when he died for the salvation of humankind “while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8).
In addition to her devotion to nature and teaching, Lindblade Swanson enjoyed travel, playing parlor games, painting, and illuminative conversation. Her circle of friends was wide and included many former students as well as faculty and staff.
By far her closest confidant and lifelong best friend was former Wheaton College Dean of Students Ruth Bamford ’50. The two met at Michigan State, shared a lakefront home across the bay from the HoneyRock Center for Leadership Development of Wheaton College, and lived as housemates for many decades until Lindblade Swanson’s marriage in 2007 to Dr. John “Jack” Swanson ’49. Bamford served as maid of honor.
Calling their marriage a “perfect capstone to my life,” Jack Swanson praised Lindblade Swanson’s “seamless” transition to marriage at the age of 75, her warm acceptance of his family as her own, and the “professorial” acumen she retained until her death.
Lifelong friends Marcia Hurt (left) and Zondra Lindblade Swanson.
Photo courtesy of Marcia Hurt.
Lindblade Swanson’s close relationships were certainly not limited to Wheaton College communities. Marcia Hurt, recalls many fond memories of the “classy yet down-to-earth” friend she found in Lindblade Swanson, including summer trips to Hawaii, campfires, hymn singing, and competitive pinochle.
“Zondra was thoughtful, a deep thinker, sacrificial, a great listener, a wonderful mentor to me and others, and a superstar professor to thousands,” says Hurt. “But most of all, she loved Jesus, and I know Jesus adored her. She discipled me and shared her love for Jesus with me for over 40 years. She was someone with whom I would always share the joys and sorrows of life, and her guidance was always wise and loving.”
Zondra Gale Lindblade Swanson ’55 is survived by her husband Jack ’49; her brother David ’60 (Ivene); her sister Mary Ann MacKenzie ’57; many nieces and nephews; stepchildren Bob (Laurie) Swanson and Kathy (Steve) Soneson; and her lifelong best friend Ruth Bamford ’50. Buswell Library Archives & Special Collections hold audio recordings of several of Lindblade Swanson’s Chapel talks and lectures.