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Paul Swenson, editor, poet and mentor to Utah writers, dies

Published February 3, 2012 5:24 pm

Credited with getting many writers started, journalist's "heart belonged to the underdog."
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Paul Swenson, mentor to a generation of Utah writers and journalists as an editor at several Utah publications, died Thursday.

He was found unconscious in his Salt Lake City apartment and died at the hospital later that day. He was 76.

Swenson began his career at Deseret News, where at age 22 he covered the police beat, later moving to the rewrite desk, where he honed his skills as an editor. But it was through Swenson's position as editor of Utah Holiday magazine, working with publisher Bob Coles, his former Mormon missionary companion, that brought a cadre of writers and reporters under his wing. At the magazine, he helped craft investigative journalism and critical pieces that brought the publication local renown and even national attention.

"He was responsible for getting so many great Utah writers started in the field," said Phyllis Barber, author of seven books, who worked with Swenson at the monthly magazine during its 1970s heyday. "He was always incredibly encouraging, focusing in on great turns of phrase in everyone's writing, even if he didn't like your whole piece."

He was the youngest of 10 children born to Margaret and Dan Arthur Swenson, immigrants from Sweden who settled in Logan. Swenson grew up in creative circles, thanks in part to the legacy of the family's oldest child, May Swenson, a celebrated literary figure who held poet-in-residence positions at prestigious universities throughout the United States. Swenson made his first trip to New York City at age 18 to visit his big sister, whom he loved and admired, and to soak up big-city life as a young man from Logan.

With film criticism as his first love, Swenson helped build Utah Holiday up from its founding days in Coles' basement to a full-fledged monthly city magazine.

"By the second issue I was recruiting all my friends to write for the magazine, and without really realizing it, I was becoming the editor,"Swenson said during a 1977 interview with Dialogue magazine.

The magazine became a byword for investigative journalism, because of its tenacity in tackling articles about the finances of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as well as the church's relations with the Legislature and local media.

Swenson left Utah Holiday after a change in ownership in 1988, picking up the beat once more in the mid-1990s as editor of The Event. In 1998, he wrote about the media for the fortnightly newspaper The Salt Lake Observer until its closing the following year, and during the 1990s he wrote a column about books for The Tribune.

No official cause of death has been determined, said Sharon Lee Swenson, his wife of 30 years until their 1998 divorce, but he had struggled with conditions related to diabetes.

A lifelong member of the LDS Church, he often struggled to reconcile his devotion given the church's opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment during the 1970s and gay rights during the following decades.

"His heart belonged to the underdog," Sharon Swenson said. "He was a volunteer at Head Start when we dated, which I thought was very unusual for a bachelor. He firmly believed that people in power weren't always making the best choices."

Swenson rallied to the cause of Mormon intellectuals excommunicated in September 1993, known as "The September Six," taking out a full-page newspaper advertisement in support of the group and organizing a protest.

"I remember marching with him down from the state Capitol to the church office building to protest the excommunication — all 15 of us — during LDS General Conference," said David Pace, literature program officer at the Utah Humanities Council, who worked under Swenson at Utah Holiday and The Event. "I remember him not only as a mentor, but a father figure to a clutch of misfits who otherwise didn't fit the mold if he hadn't helped give them direction."

After the 1989 death of his sister May, Swenson worked tirelessly to perfect his own poetry, publishing a 2003 collection titled Iced at the Ward, Burned at the Stake. He was working on another collection at the time of his death, his former wife said.

Details for a memorial service will be forthcoming.

bfulton@sltrib.com

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