A 76-year-old woman who fought for peace, made community gardens a mission and shrugged off friends' advice to move out of north Minneapolis was found dead this week in her home -- a homicide victim.
Police found Lois Swenson dead in her bedroom about noon Wednesday after friends called to say they hadn't heard from her. "She hadn't been answering phone calls for four or five days, and that wasn't like her," said longtime friend Jane Johnson. "I got worried."
Police released few details Thursday except to say the medical examiner has ruled Swenson's death a homicide.
"That she died this way, it's obscene," said Johnson, who met Swenson 50 years ago when they taught in Robbinsdale. "She is a most unusual person. So nonviolent. Always giving unconditional love. And then she died this way? I still can't get my head around this."
Swenson was last seen about a week ago. When police were called, a firefighter climbed a ladder to an upstairs bedroom window and saw her inside. She had been dead for some time.
Neighbors Tom and Pam Cook said they don't believe the homicide was random, and don't fear for their safety. Tom said the door to Swenson's house was locked when police arrived, which indicates it was not a break-in.
The boulevard in front of Swenson's Willard-Hay home is ablaze with flowers, and a garden fills her back yard. On the doorstep, flowers grow from planters made of old shoes, and inside the entry, a poster reads, "Let the Christians of the world agree that they will not kill each other."
For the last two days, grieving neighbors have stopped by to pay their respects to a woman known for her activism and kindness, who often opened her home to others and shared her garden's bounty, the Cooks said. She was a magnet for neighborhood children, whom she taught to garden and introduced to chickens she once brought home and a lamb she named "Moe" because he "mowed" the lawn. "She talked to everyone. Everyone," Tom Cook said. "Everyone up and down this street, when they heard, were in tears."
Johnson grew up on a farm near Arena, Wis., a small community 35 miles west of Madison. "I imagine that she came to the city, like a lot of people, where the money was better and there was a little more excitement," Johnson said.
Swenson taught sixth grade in Robbinsdale and took leaves to travel the world, learning how people lived in Australia, New Zealand, Africa, Mexico and Central America.
"She didn't just travel there for three or four weeks. She often spent upwards to a year," Johnson said. "She went there to learn. She saw a lot of need and a lot of hunger. And it changed her from a suburban-type girl to someone who wanted to help all the needy people."
Swenson immersed herself in social justice, peace and environmental issues. In an interview in Minnesota Women's Press, she said: "My college friends, they have to chuckle now, about when I had to have my purse and gloves and hat and shoes all matching, because that was the thing to do at the time. But now, after having lived in places where people don't have shoes, the color doesn't seem nearly as important."
She tried to help Americans understand they could live with less. "She believed in taking care of the environment. She believed in taking care of one another," Johnson said. "She didn't ever use much heat in her house. When you went there, you kept your jacket on. But she gave you hot tea and offered you a blanket."
Swenson's latest push was for community gardens. When she wasn't digging in her own garden, she was working her neighborhood's garden and helping people raise chickens, Johnson said.
Lifelong friend Sonya Forseth said Swenson would clean and mend what others would discard, then take the items to migrant workers. "She was always recycling the world," Forseth said. She helped many refugees settle, sponsoring some and opening her door to others. "Her house always had people living in it."
"She was the most loving person, the most supportive person you would ever hope to meet," Forseth said. "Her life was dedicated to peace and justice, and to think she could have died as a result of some kind of injustice is just unbelievable to me. I'll miss her. I'll miss her every day."
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