A Swan Legacy:
It’s a Family Tradition
When Shirley Swan Cornelius tells about her family ties to Montana State University, she can proudly state that 35 members of her family have attended Montana State University over the last 85 years. The Swan legacy began when her father, Leonard, (also known as Torchie for his red hair) attended Montana State College (MSC) in the early 1920s and met her mother Lillian Evers when she, too, was a student. After Lillian graduated from Fort Benton High School, her father, a firm believer in education even for women at the time, said she was going to college and put her on the train to Bozeman.
Leonard Swan, pictured in 1923-24 Montanan yearbook.
As students, both were involved in Greek life—Leonard was a Sigma Chi and Lillian was an Alpha Omicron Pi. Lillian was also a beauty queen (a tradition at the time - click here to see an image of the actual letter Lillian received.) and was the first national president of Spurs, a sophomore honorary service organization for women founded on the MSC campus in 1921. Cornelius said her mother was very poised and “a bit regal” and always had beautiful clothes. One of Lillian’s daughters-in-law, Doris Nye Swan (’50 Textile & Clothing) recalls that Lillian was very popular-- “her dance card was always full.”
“After my father and mother married at Christmas, Mother didn’t return to college. My dad always called her MSC’s first drop-out,” Cornelius said with a laugh.
Over the next few years, the young couple lived in several small communities while Leonard taught school. In Ringling, he was superintendent for two years until they moved to the upper ranch at Highwood which Lillian’s father owned.
“When they first moved to the ranch, my mother and dad lived in a three room house that was an old wreck of a place. It had a coal stove for heat. Finally, Dad built a new house when the family began to grow,” said Cornelius.
The Swans also had sheep camps at remote locations like Glacier National Park and Glasgow, Montana. Cornelius said when her brother Lee was born, her father did not find out for three days.
“We couldn’t get in touch like today with cell phones,” Cornelius said.
Eventually, all four of the Swan children found their way to Montana State College--Shirley Swan Cornelius (’46 Home Ec), Lila Swan Pasha (’49 Home Ec Ed), Miles (’50 Ag) and Lee (’59 Gen Studies).
“My dad wouldn’t send us anywhere but Bozeman,” said Cornelius.
Lillian Evers Swan, beauty queen picture
from 1923 Montanan.
After Shirley graduated from MSC, she began teaching in Havre where she met future husband Bill, who was attending college at Northern. When he decided to finish his degree, the logical place was Montana State College. The couple moved to Bozeman so Bill could attend classes, while Shirley supported them by teaching in Manhattan. They lived in married student housing, which at the time was the “barracks.”
“It was so cold you couldn’t keep the place warm,” recalls Cornelius. “We had a wood stove and the walls were so thin, you could talk to your neighbors through them. For $11 a month, we rented a bed, two chairs and a table.”
Cornelius remembers that some of the tenants dug out rooms under the house just to make more space. And in the winter they had to hang their clothes to dry “all over the room.”
Cornelius remembers another unusual thing that happened one September during World War II.
Shirley Swan Cornelius reflects on
her family ties to MSU.
“I remember when the war was on, there weren’t many men around. For two weeks in September, MSC let school out so both men and women students could go pick sugar beets in eastern Montana,” said Cornelius. “With the war on, they couldn’t find enough workers to help out with picking.”
Doris Swan & Lila Pasha look through yearbooks from MSC.
Shirley, Doris, and Lila recall their active days at MSC with fondness. In addition to their studies, all were involved in sorority life and various clubs. Some sororities were housed in today’s Quads.
“In those days, there were three or four sororities in the Quads,” Lila said. “We (Shirley and Lila) were in Alpha Omicron Pi (AOPi), which had its own house.”
Lila noted that Greek life seems to be a family tradition that began with her parents in the 1920s.
“There have been four generations of Swan women who have been in AOPi and four generations of Swan men in the Sigma Chi fraternity,” said Lila.
Doris, a member of Chi Omega sorority housed in the Quads, says campus life was different in the late 1940s compared to today. Today, there is a lot more freedom.
“In my day, dorms and sororities had house mothers and curfews,” said Doris. “During the week, we had to be in by 10:00 p.m. and on the weekends, it was 12:00. After dinner each night, we had a study time, and then we could take a half hour break to go out. Maybe our boyfriends would take us for a ride. If we weren’t back in time, the house mother would lock the door. We didn’t think anything about it (curfews). We just lived with the rules.”
“My dad wouldn’t send us anywhere
Shirley, who lived in the AOPi house, had to pay $48.50 a month for room and board. She supported herself by working as a cook at a sorority. She also “learned how to be a lady” from her sorority house mother, Miss Richie. They had formal dinners every night. Looking back, Cornelius said “it was a good thing for this old country girl.”
All three women were active in clubs such as Spurs and worked on campus at coffee shops, the bookstore, and in the kitchens. Lila was president of the Association of Women Students and Spurs, the organization her mother was actively involved with during her years at MSC.
Doris was a member of the ski club and learned to downhill ski at Bear Canyon. “I remember signing up for ski lessons during one winter when there was no snow,” she said. “We did exercises in class instead. We didn’t ski.”
They all remember former professors in the home economics department, such as Bertha Clow and Marj Paisley, and Francis Senska from the art department.
After college, the call to return to the land sounded to all the Swan children, except for Lee who went on to medical school. After Bill Cornelius graduated in agriculture from MSC, he and Shirley moved to the lower ranch outside of Cascade. When times became tough, they both taught school to make ends meet and had a hired man run the ranch.
While Bill and Shirley were ranching in Cascade, Miles and Doris Swan, and Herb (‘51 Fish & Wildlife) and Lila Swan Pasha formed a partnership on the Highwood ranch that continued for the next 50 years. What had been a sheep ranch for years under Leonard and Lillian’s ownership became a cattle ranch that also produced wheat and barley. Even though both couples are now retired, their son and son-in-law have returned home to ranch.
Nine Swans/Corneliuses/Pashas comprise the third generation of the Swan family to attend Montana State University.
“My mom and dad were also MSU graduates,” said Kirsten Schipf (’08 Chem Eng), the most recent Swan MSU graduate now working for Schlumberger Oil Service Company in Alaska. “My parents (John’79 and Annette Swan Schipf ’80) were both business majors and after living in Seattle for a few years, decided to return to the ranch in Highwood. Mom wanted to raise her kids on the ranch instead of Seattle.”
Kirsten is part of the latest generation to attend MSU. She and her siblings, David, a senior, and Katie, a freshman, are part of the fourth generation of Swans, along with cousin Reil Cornelius. All three of the Schipfs chose MSU for its strong engineering department.
“I was more interested in math and science, so I chose MSU. It was also closer to home,” said Katie, who is majoring in mechanical engineering.
“Even though I wanted to go to Gonzaga at first, I was glad I came to MSU,” said Kirsten. “I had the opportunity here to study abroad in England for a year. I also got a great education for the money.”
The Schipf children grew up hearing stories about their great-grandparents, Torchie and Lill, said David. “I used to hear how Torchie would put his engineering and math knowledge to work. He could help people on area ranches figure out how much hay they had in their stacks.”
Kirsten says people all over the state know about the Swan family. Many times she has been asked by people she doesn’t even know if she is a Swan.
“Must be the red hair,” she said. “A lot of family members have red hair.”
Cornelius said MSU has had “such an impact” on the lives of four generations of Swans. Not only has it provided a solid educational foundation for the family’s many careers—agriculture, home economics, medicine, business, and engineering--but friendships were formed that have lasted a lifetime.
“It’s a family tradition,” concluded Cornelius.
The newest generation: Katie, David & Kirsten Schipf.