Everyone always had nice things to say about Kathy Swanson, according to her boss, state Commissioner of Public Safety Michael Campion. Nothing unusual there, except for one thing:

"In her case, they always meant it," said Campion, "and it was always true."

Swanson, 53, of St. Paul, died Thursday after a two-year battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease.

"She had such a warm heart and warm spirit," said Campion. "She made everybody around her a little bit better, stand a little taller, think a little deeper and carry on a little stronger. She was passionate but as warm and compassionate as you'd find."

Passion and compassion were hallmarks of Swanson's life, said her brother, Richard Swanson, of Sioux Falls, S.D., citing her annual shopping trip to buy school supplies for underprivileged kids. Again, nothing highly unusual there -- except in how she went about it.

"First, she would take my children shopping so they could tell her what other kids would like," said Richard Swanson. "She believed that if you're giving a gift like that, it should be the best, not just the cheapest. And she bought a lot of backpacks and school supplies for children who couldn't afford them. She believed that life is for learning, and she wanted to make that possible."

Learning had come easily for Kathryn Jean Rook Swanson growing up in southwestern Minnesota. She was a champion debater in high school and graduated magna cum laude from St. Olaf College in 1977.

Swanson joined the Office of Traffic Safety (OTS) as a research analyst in 1978 and served as safety program coordinator and deputy director before becoming director in 1998. She served as president of the Governors Highway Safety Association in 2003-04.

She was a tireless advocate for child safety and elderly driving safety and against any and all distractions while driving. One of her favorite sayings was: "When you're driving, you're already multi-tasking."

During her OTS tenure, Minnesota traffic fatalities dropped virtually in half, from 980 in 1978 to 494 in 2006. Her efforts helped the state achieve 83.9 percent seat-belt usage, well above the national average.

Swanson also performed "more charity work than I will ever know," her brother said. Her hobbies included yoga, gardening and traveling with her husband, Eric Roof.

"They went to London many, many times," said Richard Swanson, "and Paris became her favorite city. Partly because of its beauty, partly because of its art, partly because you can get red grapefruit sorbet on the street there."

During her final days, Swanson was unable to laugh because her diaphragm shut down; instead, Richard said, "she'd flash a smile that involved seeing all her molars." When family members asked about flowers for her funeral, Swanson had another idea.

"Breathing required gasping; one gasp and then one syllable," recounted Richard Swanson. "It took her almost 10 minutes to get it out: 'Pass the Primary Seat Belt bill.' Always, always, what she cared about was saving peoples' lives."

In addition to her husband and brother, Swanson is survived by her parents, Heimer and Vera Swanson, and a sister, Marcia Anderson.

Visitation is from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday at Bradford Funeral Home, 488 Humboldt Av., St. Paul. The funeral is at 10 am. Wednesday at Lakewood Cemetery Memorial Chapel, 3600 Hennepin Av., Minneapolis.

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643