A 70-year-old man killed Wednesday in a head-on crash on Hwy. 50 in Dakota County was a beloved teacher and theater director at three south metro high schools.
Dennis Swanson, who also directed shows for the Eagan Community Theater, was driving north at 3:48 p.m. when his vehicle veered over the centerline near Darkhorse Lane in Hampton. He was hit by a southbound truck and died at the scene, the State Patrol said.
The truck driver, identified by the patrol as Joseph Icenogel, of Colchester, Ill., was not hurt.
Swanson’s teaching career began in 1971 at Mankato West High School. He established the theater program at Apple Valley High School when the school opened in 1976. He taught speech, film and mass media classes at the school until 1989 when he moved to Eagan High School when that school opened. After retiring in 2003, he helped start the theater program at the newly-built Lakeville South High School. Swanson directed more than 150 plays and musicals. Of the 25 one-act plays he directed for the Minnesota State High School One Act Play Festival, 21 earned a “Starred Performance,” the highest designation possible.
“Swanson was one of the founding fathers of high school theater as you see it today,” said Kent Knutson, a longtime friend and current artistic director at the Old Log Theater. “Denny’s program was a constant welcoming place for kids. He was a great role model in the arts community.”
Swanson won several awards for his productions and teaching. In 1993, he was given the Outstanding Individual in Communication and Theatre Award from the Communication and Theatre Association of Minnesota and the Outstanding Service Award from the Apple Valley-Rosemount School District in 2003. He was inducted into the Minnesota State High School League Hall of Fame in 2013. He also was inducted into halls of fame at Apple Valley High School and his alma mater, Richfield High School.
Some of Swanson’s former students went on to enjoy careers in theater. Others remember how he touched their lives in the classroom and on the stage.
“He was a passionate, committed and amazing teacher,” said Krista Martin, a 1983 graduate of Apple Valley High School. “He was truly one of the best, really believed in art, performance, excellence, self-expression and possibility for young people. I wouldn’t even be the person I am without having been directed by him in plays, many, many times. I can still hear that gravelly, smoke-thickened voice of his barking notes in a dark theater during final dress rehearsals and that unmistakable, slightly sarcastic laugh. He was a character, one-of-a-kind.”
A giant in the high school theater world, Swanson was still active in community theater. His shows raised more $150,000 for theater programs at Apple Valley and Eagan high schools, according to a biography obtained from the Minnesota State High School League.