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Thursday, 09 June 2011 11:43

Long-time reporter/editor outstanding in his field

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By Delon Shurtz
Southern Alberta Newspapers
Southern Alberta
There’s a desk against the north wall on the second floor of the Lethbridge Herald that, after decades of use, now sits vacant.

A grey, high-backed chair is no longer occupied, and the eerie silence from that part of the newsroom is deafening. The chortles and guffaws to which reporters grew accustomed to hearing over the years have ceased, as have the corny jokes and bad puns.

While one might think someone in The Herald newsroom died, it only feels like it. After more than four decades with the newspaper, Ric Swihart has retired, leaving fellow reporters to wonder who will be able to fill his shoes, and perhaps more importantly, who will provide the doughnuts, licorice and Ju Jubes.

“What I will miss most about Ric is not only his knowledge, experience and professionalism, but also his readiness to roll up his sleeves and lend a hand in the newsroom no matter the project, whether agriculture-related or not,” says Lethbridge Herald managing editor Craig Albrecht.

“Most of all, however, I will miss his humanity.

He really is one of the nicest people you will ever meet; always ready with a smile and a word of encouragement.”

Little did Swihart know when he was just a youngster living in Fort Macleod, that summer vacations spent at his grandparents’ farm were preparing him for a career that would last 41 years,

39 of those years as agriculture reporter and editor.

“I jumped into it with both feet,” he recalls of his assignment to cover agriculture after about two years at The Herald.

He could be speaking literally as more than once he found himself gumboot deep in cow manure as he reported farm-related issues around the region and got to know the people who feed the rest of the world. It was a beat he loved then, and one he continued to love right up until June 1, his last day on the job.

It won’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows him, that Swihart looked forward to work each day.

“I never woke up a single day and said, ‘darn, I’ve got to go to work.’”

He rarely had a bad day — if he did he hid it well — and he was always positive and cheerful.

“I’ll miss the upbeat attitude Ric brought to work every day,” says desk editor Dave Sulz. “To Ric, every day was a good day and he had a way of always looking on the bright side that was contagious.”

Swihart has seen a lot of changes in the newspaper industry over 41 years. When he started with The Herald on Dec. 8, 1969, shortly after graduating from Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, he wrote his stories on a manual typewriter (younger readers, look it up on Google). The introduction of computers was still many years away. He earned $300 a month — garbage men made $500 — and he worked long hours, often travelling out of province or into the U.S. to cover stories.

His first beat included Indian Affairs and the Chamber of Commerce, and he covered the first CUPE strike in the city. He also recalls writing a column criticizing the federal government for introducing enabling legislation he believed would allow the government to have heavy-handed control of the agriculture industry. That landed him in a little hot water, but it also provided an opportunity to meet with the federal agriculture minister.

Swihart participated in the “save the sugar beet” lobby to Ottawa in 1985 when Brian Mulroney was prime minister; he wrote about missile silos in Montana; and during his last two days at The Herald, he covered a water conference sponsored by the Lethbridge Research Centre.

He recalls a particularly memorable assignment when he covered an annual farmers’ meeting in Regina during his early years with The Herald.

The only way to get his stories back to the newspaper in Lethbridge was to send them by teletype, at a cost, much to the chagrin of his editor, of about $1,200.

Swihart is well-liked and well-respected throughout the region, not because of his high-profile job, but because of his conduct on and off the job. His work also speaks for itself, and his achievements are many.

He is an honorary member of the Alberta Institute of Agrologists, a lifetime member of the Alberta Farm Writers’ Association.

Swihart was the first Canadian member of the National Association of Agricultural Journalists in the U.S. and was awarded the Centennial Medal by Senator Joyce Fairbairn.

He was recently presented the Alberta Irrigation Projects Association Water Wheel Award for dedicated service.

As the saying goes, all good things must end, and after more than four decades in the business, Swihart finally decided it was time to file his last story and meet his last deadline, but newspapers will remain in his blood.

“I’ll open up the paper forever.”

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