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Former Kirkwood Mayor Mike Swoboda dies at 69

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 6, 2008 - In life, Mike Swoboda seemed like a perpetual motion machine as he moved around his town of Kirkwood shaking hands, joking with old friends, listening to people's problems, tutoring elementary school students and always recruiting volunteers for community service. Swoboda died Saturday morning after difficult months recovering from gunshot wounds and fighting cancer. He was 69.

Funeral services have been scheduled for 4 p.m. Thursday at First Presbyterian Church of Kirkwood, 100 E. Adams Ave.

To the outside world, Swoboda will be remembered as the mayor who was gunned down last Feb. 7 by an angry citizen, miraculously surviving while five other city officials died around him. But to the people of Kirkwood, Mike Swoboda's life is about what came before that night. Over two decades he served four terms on the city council and then two as mayor. During his tenure, the town was transformed with the construction of the Station Plaza development in the center of the city and the purchase of the old train station.

"Never have I heard of anybody who engaged in so much gratuitous public service," said his friend Stephen O. Smith. Smith, a lawyer and former municipal judge in Kirkwood, was part of a group of friends who went on trout fishing and poker trips a couple of times a year at Rockbridge, Mo., near Ava. Like his other friends, Smith remembered Swoboda's wry, self-deprecating sense of humor.

"Mike just loved public service, loved people and wanted to get them involved," said Marge Schramm, who served as mayor before Swoboda.

If the Kirkwood Children's Choir was performing, Swoboda was there. If the Kirkwood High School was putting on a play or an orchestra concert, Swoboda was there. If the Rotary was meeting or the city's avid group of gardeners was at work, Swoboda was there. At Robinson Elementary School, Swoboda regularly showed up to tutor children.

Mayor Art McDonnell had announced Swoboda's death Saturday morning at the meeting of the Community for Healing and Understanding, a group that is trying to heal racial wounds in the wake of the Feb. 7 shootings. The crowd was stunned. McDonnell led them in a silent prayer.

Saturday afternoon, after a hastily called press conference, McDonnell stood behind his delicatessen case thinking about his old friend and predecessor in office. The big American flag outside the store had been lowered to half staff, as had other flags in Kirkwood and Des Peres.

McDonnell said that Swoboda's return to City Hall last spring for one last city council meeting turned out to be the high point of his recovery from the shooting. Immediately after taking two shots to the head, Swoboda's chances of surviving were low. But in April, he walked into the refurbished council chambers to standing ovations. He said that even though a "terrible thing happend in this room" Kirkwood still was a "beautiful place." He said, "I have loved serving Kirkwood."

That evening, the Normandy High School native was presented with a honorary degree from Kirkwood High School.

A few weeks after the City Hall appearance, he fell and suffered a head injury. He got back home July 4 and McDonnell remembers sitting on the front porch of Swoboda's home later in the summer. But by Labor Day, when McDonnell last visited Swoboda, he was sinking and last week he went into hospice care.

McDonnell said Swoboda didn't talk about the events of Feb. 7. Instead, he would ask McDonnell how things were going at City Hall.

McDonnell went into the back of the market to retrieve Swoboda's favorite words about Kirkwood. He read them at the 150th birthday celebration for the town. "Kirkwood is lavished with history, transversed by railroads, shaded under tall trees, bounded by a wandering river and filled to the brim with good people." After the Feb. 7 shooting those words were incribed at City Hall.

This reporter knew Swoboda for more than three decades. Last Chistmas Eve, my daughter-in-law from California got lost while taking a run. As she tried to figure out where she was, a man stopped in a car to offer help. The man was on his way to Schnucks to pick up groceries, but he offered to give her a ride home. "I know where everyone in Kirkwood lives," he said. It was Mike Swoboda.

Surviving are his wife Susan; his daughter, Katy Hutchison and her husband, Charlie, of Valley Park; and his son Michael, of Kirkwood. There wil be no visitation. Swoboda's remains will be cremated.

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