Art Swenka, who was one of the founders of EBRA, one of the founders of public radio station KXNM, an avid balloonist, and more, passed away Feb. 4.
Area leaders and those who knew Swenka remember a hardworking man, generous with his time, money and expertise.
Swenka was instrumental in creating the Estancia Basin Resource Association, or EBRA, a nonprofit organization dedicated to keeping water in the Estancia Basin after an attempt by area water rights owners to sell water to the City of Santa Fe.
In a very short period of time, the group had incorporated and raised about $200,000 to pay for legal fees in the event another such attempt was mounted. Swenka served as the group’s president for many years, and remained on the board after that.
He was also instrumental in creating Torrance County’s public radio station, which applied for a license from the Federal Communications Commission in 2007.
With seed money of $30,000, KXNM was underway, first broadcasting in 2011.
Swenka was on the original board of directors, and remained at the radio station since then in some way or another. His wife, Dixie Swenka, also volunteered untold hours keeping the station’s McIntosh office open and staffed with volunteers.
The former McIntosh Community Center was donated to the radio station, whose transmission tower is in Encino.
The Independent was also involved in the endeavor, providing news for the station in its early days.
Lacey Cromer now finds herself trying to fill the gigantic shoes of her mentor at KXNM, a man she thinks of as “like a grandfather to me.” Struggling with both the personal loss and the loss to the radio station, Cromer spoke of her vast admiration for Swenka, who introduced her to his expertise in sales in training her to sell promotional spots on the station.
Swenka was born in Iowa in 1937, where he was raised on a hog farm, she said. He joined the Army at 18, and went to Alaska, where he worked at a mechanic shop “making good money,” Cromer said, adding that Swenka said he didn’t have money problems after that.
He drove a produce truck and a mail truck at the same time, sometimes going straight from one route to the other, before he was offered a job at Noble Foods, which later became Sysco. At Sysco, Swenka eventually be in charge of 14 companies in west of the Mississippi, and in Alaska and Canada.
Swenka was a man of exceptional drive, Cromer said, adding that he was doing work at the station very recently.
Cromer also said that her mentor—because of his insistence on communication—left KXNM prepared. “I’m not worried about the radio station, because Art communicated everything to everyone. Art never kept anything to himself.”
News of Swenka’s death “just devastated all of us,” said Moriarty Mayor Ted Hart, who said he had seen his friend recently. “What people don’t realize, is this was all volunteer work,” Hart said, adding, “He didn’t care if you were Republican, Democrat, he spoke his mind and was very genuine.”
Estancia’s Mayor, Nathan Dial, agreed. Swenka was a member of American Legion Post 22 in Estancia, as is Dial. “He was always willing to volunteer time, or to donate to any event to help the locals. And humble, too. He was very wealthy, very knowledgable, experienced, very well travelled. He flew a hot air balloon, … was in the military up in Alaska—just so much that he did.”
John Jones is on state and national Rural Water Associations, and other boards related to water. “Art was great, low key, wasn’t looking for praise ever, just doing what he thought was right for the community,” Jones said.
Jones met Swenka “around 2003 or 2004” around the time he formed EBRA. “I was sitting on the Water Planning Committee at the time. He just made a lot of sense.”
Swenka later joined the Water Planning Committee and the two became friends.
“He had a strong business outlook and in some ways approached water as the business and the bank account of the valley,” Jones said, adding, “He put his money where his mouth was, and got people to be engaged. He was a true public servant, what politicians should be. He served and didn’t care about the credit.”
Dee Tarr of the Claunch Pinto SWCD also considers Swenka a mentor, serving with him on several committees. “He was honest and worked hard on the issues that were the closest to his heart. … I will miss our conversations, our partnerships and can only hope I can live up to his ideals. He lived to make our community a better place to live.”
“Torrance County lost an incredible human being,” wrote Mountainair Mayor Peter Nieto on Facebook.
Swenka served on the board of the Balloon Fiesta, along with boards too numerous to mention, including: past president of the Torrance County Farm and Livestock Bureau; member of the EMWT Regional Water Association; president of EBRA; president of KXNM board of directors; volunteer for the Torrance County Fire Department in Torreón; board member of the Edgewood Soil and Water Conservation District.