For many Bloomington Kennedy High School students, Clarice Swisher was the toughest teacher they’d ever had.
She nurtured students through her passion for Shakespeare, and nudged them with a red pen that delivered decisive praise or withering criticism on hundreds of papers.
“She would not take any excuses. Her attitude was that if you’re here, you’re going to do the work,” said Dean Lambrecht, now an assistant public defender in Dakota County.
Swisher, 85, of St. Paul, died late last month after a battle with cancer that began last fall with tumors on her liver.
Karin Barnes, of St. Paul, said that her “tough as nails” mother “didn’t let pain get her down” until it became unbearable in early February and she left home for the final time. At the hospital, doctors found additional tumors in her brain, Barnes said.
In an online forum, Kennedy High graduates from the 1970s through the 1990s recalled Swisher as a life-changing teacher who challenged them intellectually through analysis of English classics. She taught advanced placement literature for many years, delivering assessments and lessons to students that have lasted them a lifetime.
Amy Gaukel Jensen of Bloomington, a 1991 Kennedy alumna, wrote: “Some teachers leave you a key. Because of her, I aced every essay question in college.”
Lambrecht said that if your paper was subpar, “She didn’t hold back.” He recalled her numerous comments on his papers that read: “What were you thinking?”
But Lambrecht said he valued the experience, keeping the papers and gleaning from them insights throughout college and law school. He noted that Swisher’s most famous student was Oscar-winning Pixar executive Pete Docter, who helped create the animated movies “Up” and “Inside Out,” among many others.
Esther Carlson Logelin, of Lakeville, said she hated reading when she entered Swisher’s classroom in 1970. Then she started listening to Swisher as she read to her.
They continued with the readings until, she said, Swisher “got me so hooked I asked her if I could bring the book home and read more. No pressure, she agreed. I was not able to put the book down. I believe she cared deeply for her students.”
“If she did praise you,” Barnes said, chuckling, “you knew that it was genuine.”
Swisher, a native of Cokato, Minn., graduated from Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter. She taught at Atwater High School in Atwater, Minn., before moving to Kennedy.
Every couple of years, Barnes said, she and her mother took two-week trips to England, spending the first week in London seeing shows and visiting museums, then traveling to another part of the country.
After Swisher retired, she wrote educational books on Victorian women, Hawthorne, Picasso and Einstein. She developed an interest in physics and quantum mechanics, something she kept up through reading and discussions, and enjoyed walking her dog and picking up her grandchildren from school.
Her obituary encouraged donations to the arts she enjoyed throughout her life: the Guthrie Theater, Minnesota Orchestra, Minnesota Opera and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.
Swisher was preceded in death by her former husband, Lowell Swisher. Besides Barnes, she is survived by two grandchildren. Arrangements are pending for a celebration of Swisher’s life in June at Unity Church-Unitarian, 733 Portland Av., St. Paul.