Especially when the good thing was simple: his family at the dinner table on an ordinary weeknight, the crack of a bat when the bases are loaded, the way a Dylan record sounds through the perfect set of speakers.
“He was really good at being present,” says Sarah, Swirsky’s oldest.
“Even before he got sick,” she adds. “He would just soak it all in.”
On the front porch of his Highland Square home, Swirsky’s family looks out over a lawn planted with milkweed. He and his son, David, designed their devil strip to attract native pollinators and boost the neighborhood’s biodiversity.
“We’re along the Monarch migration trail,” says Rebecca Jenkins, Swirsky’s wife and partner of 35 years. “So this gives them a place to stop and rest.”
In 2013, Swirsky’s life as an educator, organizer, father, coach and public servant culminated in his campaign to represent Ward 1 as a member of Akron City Council.
He won the seat and represented Ward 1 residents for eight years with patience, pride and a deep sense of personal responsibility.
Swirsky belonged not only to his wife and children, but to the larger world — to his community, his friends, his faith and his convictions.
On May 26, just before the milkweed bloomed, he died of Acute Myeloid Leukemia in his own home, surrounded by family.
Four months later, those closest to him both grieve the loss of their father, husband, colleague and friend, and look to celebrate a life and legacy poised to long outlast a single generation.
‘He was just always there.’
“One of the best things about Rich is how he loved his family,” says Swirsky’s friend and Ward 1 resident Karen Edwards.
By all accounts, Swirsky nourished Jenkins and their children. He laughed with them, cooked for them, protected them and supported their every talent and endeavor.
He coached every little league baseball team David ever played on, and when Sarah chose theater over softball in elementary school, he became a supportive theater dad, too.
“He was at every single show,” Sarah says. “He was so supportive of me in that way.”
Swirsky was born and raised in Cleveland Heights, the son of a Jewish postal worker. He spent summers playing baseball on the dirt fields behind Boulevard Elementary and catching frogs and snakes in Cain Park, running home just long enough to clear his dinner plate.
As a student at Ohio University, he immersed himself in organizing. He read Marx, studied Mao and joined the Attica Brigade — a radical student-led, anti-imperialist organization. In his time at OU, Swirsky developed a set of personal politics and beliefs rooted in social, economic and racial justice.
When School officials ruled against the change, organizers occupied an administrative building. Police arrived to make arrests, but Swirksy refused to leave.
Telling the story, his family shares a soft laugh of recognition: the spirit and conviction Swirsky possessed as a long-haired college student in the late 1970s remained with him for the rest of his life.
A home in Akron
In 1979, Swirsky took a job as the Akron Area Director for Ohio Citizens Action and moved to Akron. Two years later, at a street protest in Middlebury, he met Jenkins face to face for the first time.
Occasionally, Swirsky would tell his friend and Ward 1 constituent Karen Edwards the story: “He’d say, ‘Have I ever told you how I met Becky?’ And I’d say, ‘Yes, Rich. But you can go ahead and tell me again.’”
Swirsky and Jenkins put down roots in Akron, and Swirsky spent the next 20 years directing campaigns for Ohio Citizen Action. While raising a young family, he championed workers’ rights and campaigned in support of dozens of environmental causes, including the passage of the Superfund bill.
By the 1990s, he was back in school earning a Masters of Education, while teaching after-school nature classes to middle schoolers. As a teacher, coach and counsellor, he kept an eye on students who seemed to struggle. When he was with young people, Swirsky was patient, attentive, funny and kind.
“He was a good listener,” David says. “He just knew how to relate to you and almost draw out what you needed to hear, or what you needed to get done… He was very intuitive.”
At home in Highland Square, Swirsky launched the city’s first recycling pilot program, and was instrumental in preventing Taco Bell from developing a plot of land at the corner of North Portage Path and West Market Street.
Instead, the spot became a beloved community garden, and then the locally-owned Mustard Seed Market.
‘It was about community’
Above all else, Swirsky understood the power of collective joy and shared experience.
Ned and Jodie Delamatre, who count themselves among Swirsky’s closest and oldest friends, spent three decades with the Swirsky family, raising their children together, celebrating and supporting one another through life’s changes and challenges.
“He was really like a brother to me,” Delamatre says. “We laughed all the time, but we could also cry together. We spent a lot of time just talking about anything and everything — loyalty, honesty, love. There are very deep roots in our friendship.”
The families camped, hiked, ate and traveled together. They celebrated holidays, birthdays and graduations.
“You develop a web of support,” Delamatre says. “You can build a foundation, and [those relationships] are just so special.”
For years, the two families hosted international dinners, which are still among Delamatre’s most cherished memories of her time with Swirsky.
“It really was a bonding experience, because I would get the recipes for a country and then distribute the recipes. We’d all meet at one house and share this wonderful food,” she says. “[For Rich], it was always about food. But it was [also] about sharing. It was about humor. It was about community.”
Of all Swirsky’s roles, council was his favorite
In 2012, a redistricting changed the makeup of Akron’s Ward 1, shifting its boundary to exclude North Hill. Typically, a representative from North Akron won the seat, and Swirsky wasn’t sure a candidate from Highland Square could compete.
The redistricting seemed to be a sign. After years of more informal leadership within the community, it was time for Swirsky to make it official.
After a contentious race, he won the seat, and went on to influence then Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic’s decisions about green infrastructure options for the city’s $1.4 billion, EPA-mandated sewer overhaul project.
“Rich was always there to help. Sometimes it was coordinating with the city or just showing up with a shovel and some pizzas. He always used his position to do better for people,” Edwards says “He was just fearless, and he was such a good friend.”
Amy, a Ward 1 resident and mother to a now-teenage son, met Swirsky when he stopped by a neighborhood party on his bicycle. During his first campaign, he visited most streets in Ward 1 by bicycle, knocking on doors, chatting with residents and taking notes.
When Swirsky met Amy’s young son for the first time, the pair clicked, and he took care to check in frequently.
“He would literally get down on his knee and interact with [my son] and just be present with him,” Amy says. “You could tell that he really cared about getting to know us.”
More recently, when new neighbors posed challenges in Amy’s neighborhood, Swirsky stepped in to help mediate.
“He just never really let anybody’s negativity affect the way that he did what he was elected to do,” Amy says. “He took personal pride in that.”
“You could feel that in everything that he did in the community,” she adds. “He was just one of the best.”
‘To repair the world’
Swirsky knew the healing power of a well-planned block party or an evening spent on someone else’s front porch. He believed in the goodness of his neighbors — and if not the present goodness, then at least the possibility of goodness to come.
“He would say, ‘Every person is made in the image of God,’” Jenkins says. “That’s where his sense of fairness and justice came from.”
At some point in his adulthood, Swirsky reconnected with the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam, the idea that each of us is responsible not only for our own moral and ethical selves, but for the state of the larger world.
“Tikkun Olam means to heal the world,” Jenkins says. “He identified as a Jew in that way — that it is your responsibility to repair the world.”
Though Swirsky is no longer living, the healing his life and work set in motion continues to nourish his family, colleagues and community: in the Orchard on South Maple Street, where he helped friends and neighbors plant; in his children — now public servants themselves; and in his front lawn, when the Monarchs arrive in droves.
For those who knew him, the echo of Swirsky’s life and legacy can be found in every corner of the city.
“He wanted so badly to be there,” Jenkins says. “He wanted to feel like himself again. He wanted to get better and get back to work.”
In April, Swirsky celebrated his 68th birthday from his front porch. The Akron Fire Department sent firetrucks in his honor, and dozens of friends, colleagues and constituents dropped by to celebrate.
“Things just sort of happened that were really beautiful, in a way,” David says. “Those little things were really meaningful.”
A few weeks later, in early May, Swirsky made chatpate, a traditional Nepali dish and Swirsky family favorite, for the last time. After that, his health declined, and soon doctors told him he’d need to enter hospice care.
For Swirsky and his family, it was important to honor him in their own home, among friends, where he spent so many seasons planting seeds.
“He wanted so badly to come home,” Jenkins says. “And I wouldn’t have had it any other way.”
Planting a white oak
For two days, visitors came and went.
In the living room, Swirsky received them from his hospital bed.
Zach Freidof played guitar at his bedside, and Councilmember Veronica Simms sang a version of “Amazing Grace.” State Senator Vernon Sykes told Swirsky stories of their time together as young organizers in East Akron. Councilmember Tara Samples came to hold his hand.
“In our culture, people don’t treat death and dying with the reverence that it deserves,” David says. “We understood the value [of] the ritual that you can have around it. It just makes everything easier when you have that [experience], and when you have the support.”
Four months after Swirsky’s death — after hot meals and cards stopped arriving — his family is grappling with both grief and gratitude.
At the end of October, Jenkins and her children will dig up a patch of earth at the corner of Edgerton and North Highland Streets, where people often gather to eat and talk and celebrate.
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