Former Star Tribune arts editor John Habich was traveling to Paris in 1989 when a mutual friend suggested he meet up with former Walker Art Center chief curator Dean Swanson, who was also visiting.

"He was dealing in antiquarian prints, so I contacted him and asked could I follow him around for a day," Habich said.

Their meeting resulted in a story about Swanson's findings on the Left Bank. A few years later they met again in Paris, but they didn't become close until 1994, when each of their mothers died and they found themselves going through similar emotional processing. That connection transformed into a special lifelong friendship.

"He was a single gay man with no siblings, and there were no social-support traditions for anybody in that position," he said. "So when my future husband, Andrew, asked me to move to New York, I told him that I planned to take care of Dean when he grew old."

When their son George was born, Swanson became his bonpapa, French for "grandpa." Eight years ago, he moved to New York City and they lived together as a family.

Swanson died peacefully in his sleep Aug. 24, three weeks shy of his 87th birthday. Before going to bed, he got the usual good-night hug and kiss from George. "He looked up at me with a big grin and said, 'I'm so lucky' — which turned out to be his last words," Habich said.

Born in Mendota Heights to a couple who owned a camera shop in downtown St. Paul, he cemented his Francophile status at the University of Minnesota, majoring in French with minors in French history and art history.

He joined Walker Art Center in 1961 during the heady days when longtime director Martin Friedman put it on the international art world's map, working his way up to the post of chief curator a decade later.

Swanson organized the first U.S. exhibition of sculptures by Joan Miró after the opening of the Walker's signature Barnes Building in 1971, followed by a Robert Motherwell solo show. "He loved artists of the '60s and '70s, the artists of his time, like Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Ellsworth Kelly," said Habich.

He also was instrumental in creating the Walker's film program, said Suzanne Weil, the Walker's coordinator of performing arts from 1968 to 1976. "Dean had exquisite taste," Weil said. "He was to the point of being a little fussy on the one hand ... on the other hand he had this marvelous silly side that was nothing but fun.

"He knew everything about movies. He could recite pieces of dialogue. He was a Renaissance man. He did it all."

After leaving the Walker in 1977, he oversaw the exhibition program at Landmark Center in St. Paul, then was director of the Minnesota Museum of American Art from 1979 to 1982 before departing to become a consultant and independent curator.

He curated his last show in 2006, "LeWitt x 2," combining works by Sol LeWitt with pieces from the artist's personal collection for the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art at the University of Wisconsin.

"John Habich referred to him as a national treasure, which I thought was the most beautiful expression for Dean," said Lise Friedman, Martin Friedman's daughter, a professor at NYU and a former dancer with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.

She remembers him as "Uncle Dean." He became close with her daughter Sophie while she was studying in Paris — soul mate close, the kind that can finish each other's sentences, she said.

"I have memories of him in my parents' kitchen in Minneapolis. He was just a bright light. ... Not everyone in your life has that kind of halo effect."

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