In 1990, Elizabeth Sherman Swing was knighted by King Beaudoin of Belgium to honor her research in Belgian education. Thereafter, as she enjoyed recounting, the provost of St. Joseph’s University, where she was a professor, called her, “Sir Elizabeth.”
Elizabeth Sherman Swing died peacefully at the age of 91 on October 23, 2018, in Concord, Mass., where she had lived since 2015. She is survived by her daughter, Pamela Swing (Martin Plotkin) of Concord, her son, Bradford Swing (Timothy Harbold) of Boston; and two grandchildren, Benjamin Plotkin-Swing of Seattle, Wash., and Anna Plotkin-Swing of Somerville. She was preceded in death by her son, Timothy Gram Swing in 1983, her husband, Peter Gram Swing in 1996, and her brother, Richard Sherman, just last month.
The journey to becoming “Sir Elizabeth” began humbly in 1927, when Elizabeth Ann Sherman was born in Boston, Mass., to James Beatty Sherman, a letter carrier, and Hilda Ford Sherman, a homemaker. Betty or Sherm, as her younger brother Dick recalled, “displayed an assertive — possibly I might even say ‘rebellious’ — manner at an early age,” a quality that collided with, again her brother’s words, “a highly controlled” family life that included multiple weekly engagements with the First Baptist Church of Arlington. Her rebellious manner and lifelong concern for social justice showed when, selected to organize the Evacuation Day assembly at Arlington High School, to the principal’s consternation she arranged for an African-American civil rights leader to be speaker.
Sherman Swing attended Radcliffe College at Harvard University from which she was awarded a bachelor’s degree (cum laude) in 1949 and Masters degree in 1952, both in English Literature. Designated as Alumnae Day Speaker by the Class of 1949 for its 50th reunion, Sherman Swing reflected that, at Radcliffe, “I began to develop the intellectual verve and skills that made the rest of my life possible. As a commuter, the first in my family to go to college, I encountered many challenges, but I knew when I got off the bus each morning that I was entering a vibrant, exciting world.”
In May 1948, at the end of her junior year, she married Peter Gram Swing, “one of the many World War II veterans who flooded the Harvard campus between 1945 and 1949,” she later wrote. In 1952-1953, she lived in Utrecht, Holland, where her husband had a Fulbright research grant. “Thereafter,” as she recounted in her Alumnae Day address, she “held a series of part-time jobs in whatever community my husband’s developing career took us, never for a long enough time to dig into a career of my own.” She was an editor of English language publications for a Dutch foundation in The Hague, an adjunct faculty member at Rollins College in Florida teaching English composition to Air Force Personnel on Cape Canaveral, and an instructor at the University of Chicago Home Study Department. “These dead-end jobs notwithstanding, by the time we moved to Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, in 1955, I was gradually becoming a full-time wife and mother.”
The role of professor’s wife — her husband taught music at Swarthmore College — did not suit Sherman Swing. The turning point came in 1965, as she described vividly in her Radcliffe address: “My awakening came in a moment of existential crisis on the bright September day my youngest entered Kindergarten. Standing by the kitchen sink bathing the dog, I found myself saying over and over again with high emotion, ‘What am I doing with my life?’”
Within a year, she become a teacher of English to “academically talented students” at Marple-Newtown High School in Newtown Square, Pa. She also began to write articles published in refereed national journals. Needing in her words “to stretch my mind,” in 1972, one year after her husband’s second Fulbright research grant in Belgium, she enrolled in the Summer School of the University of Pennsylvania. There were no graduate courses in English Literature but she found a graduate comparative education course taught by William Brickman, a founder of the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES). This discovery dramatically changed Sherman Swing’s life.
In 1979, at the age of 52, she was awarded a Ph.D. in Comparative Education from the University of Pennsylvania. Under Professor Brickman’s guidance, she examined the Belgian language conflict, the centuries-old rivalry between French-speaking and Dutch-speaking Belgians and the impact of this conflict on schools. She later wrote, describing her recent year in Belgium: “I had witnessed language partisans in Brussels painting out the street signs in the language of their rivals. My ears were still tuned to raucous exhortations from loudspeakers on trucks that invaded our neighborhood daily calling on citizens to vote for the radical French-language party. I had lived in the middle of the Belgian language quarrel.” This conflict served as the point of departure for her Ph.D. dissertation, Bilingualism and Linguistic Segregation in the Schools of Brussels, which was published in 1980 by the International Center for Research on Bilingualism in Quebec.
From 1975 to 1977, Sherman Swing taught education at West Chester State University and in 1978, she began teaching at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, from which she retired as Professor of Education in 1999. Her position at St. Joseph’s grounded what she described as “a vigorous productive life in academe.” She published more than 30 scholarly articles, many of which she presented at annual meetings of the CIES throughout the U. S., Canada and Mexico, as well as Antwerp, Athens, Budapest, Cape Town, Copenhagen, Dijon, Kingston, London, Madrid, Prague, Rome, Sarajevo, Seoul, and Sydney. She also co-authored Problems and Prospects in European Education, published in 2000.
In 1989-1990, Sherman Swing, this time with her own Fulbright research grant, was a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Education of the University of London, an affiliate at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel and, by Royal Decree of King Beaudoin, made a Knight in the Order of the Crown (Ridder in de Kroonorde). But the award that meant the most to her came in 2000, when she was made one of only 15 Honorary Fellows among 2000 CIES members. She also became the Society’s first historian, a position she held for ten years.
Sherman Swing lived in Swarthmore after her husband died until 2005, when she moved to Dunwoody Village in Newtown Square with six cabinets of research material and two Siamese cats, London and Brussels. Within weeks of her arrival, she became editor of Inside Dunwoody, an in house newsletter that she successfully transformed into “the New Yorker of octogenarian publications.” For many years, she continued her routine of preparing and delivering at least one scholarly paper a year. She also traveled to China and Antarctica. In 2015, her health declining, she moved to Concord Park, in Concord, Mass.
Sherman Swing was known for her wry humor, a vivid intellect expressed in elegant speech, and at times a fiery temper, a quality that seemingly matched her fiery red hair. She was an exacting and beloved teacher as well as a valued mentor to numerous women pursuing academic careers. She loved American literature, particular the Massachusetts transcendentalists. She also loved music and attended hundreds of orchestra concerts by the Philadelphia Orchestra and particularly the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood, where her husband taught from 1962 to 1987. From 1975 to 1997, she had a second home on Long Beach Island, N. J., where she joined her husband’s avid sailing passion and enjoyed the view of the Barnegat Bay. Although she lived in Pennsylvania from 1955 to 2015, her heart was deeply rooted in New England, including special connections to Nantucket, Lenox and Stockbridge, Mass., and to Putney Mountain, Vt. A descendant of Governor William Bradford, in her very last days, amid struggles with dementia, she asked her children about the Mayflower, how long its voyage was to America, and for help in getting “home” to Plymouth.
A memorial service will take place on Saturday, March 23, 2019 at 2 p.m. in Swarthmore Friends Meeting, 12 Whittier Place, Swarthmore, PA 19081 with a reception following.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in her memory to Town of Arlington, memo: Elizabeth Sherman Swing Scholarship, 730 Massachusetts Ave., Arlington, MA 02476.
For her online guestbook, please visit www.DeeFuneralHome.com.