Sweany, Gordon H. (1913-1986)

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 8/11/2005
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7385
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Gordon H. Sweany was a Seattle lawyer and the chairman of the board of SAFECO Corp. Under his leadership, SAFECO grew into one of the 20 largest diversified financial corporations in the United States. Sweany’s lifelong service on a multitude of boards and civic committees demonstrated his deep dedication to the Seattle community. He was particularly involved with making Seattle’s University District a safe and livable neighborhood, and with students, particularly international students. The Seattle-King County Association of Realtors named Gordon Sweany First Citizen of 1979.

Early Life

Gordon H. Sweany was born on May 8, 1913, in Curtis, Washington, a small community in Lewis County.  His parents were Eliza J. Harris Sweany and Charles H. Sweany. Eliza Harris’s parents were pioneers to nearby Boistfort.  Before her marriage, Eliza taught school in Lewis County, riding home on the leather and red velvet sidesaddle she bought with half of her first month’s wages. 

Charles Sweany and his family came to Salkum (another small settlement in Lewis County) from Kansas in 1882 when he was 10.  In time he, too, taught school in Lewis County, sending $25 of his monthly $35 salary home to his parents. 

The two young schoolteachers met at a Fourth of July celebration, and married in 1896.  Their son Loren Edward Sweany, Gordon’s older brother, later remembered, “They shocked folks by going to Ellensburg Normal School.  Married couples didn’t attend school.  They were qualified and taught in a larger, two-room school in Little Falls (now Vader) ... their first son, Fay, born in 1900, broke up their teaching team” (“The History of Lewis County, Washington”).  Charles Sweany changed careers, eventually running the Curtis Store and Post Office.  The youngest of six siblings, Gordon Sweany attended public schools in Boistfort. 

A Country Boy Childhood

Gordon Sweany later remembered his childhood as an average country boy upbringing, except for the asthma that kept him sequestered indoors.  He told writer Sid Copland that he learned to read “early and omnivorously.  ‘These hours of enforced leisure gave me more time to think about my future than does the average boy.  I decided quite early that I wanted to be a lawyer, not a farmer’” (The Safeco Story, p. 224). 

His parents’ commitment to higher education probably influenced him as well.  He took an undergraduate degree from Centralia College, and then entered the University of Washington from which he received his LLB cum laude in 1934.

On September 8, 1934, Gordon Sweany married Alta Showalter of Seattle.  They had a son, Garett G. Sweany.

Entering the Insurance Business

Sweany signed on with General Insurance Company of America (later SAFECO) in 1934, working as a member of the legal department.  During his early years with the firm, he helped draft language for so-called “Blanket” insurance policies -- a General Insurance innovation.  (Blanket policies cover all liability exposure on a building, farm, or business.  Prior to the development of blanket policies, anyone seeking insurance was forced to carry numerous policies for various parts of the property and each type of risk exposure, i.e. fire, flood, theft, auto, accidents, burglary, damage suits, etc.) 

In 1942 Sweany was promoted to manager of the legal department, a position he held until 1948.  In 1949 he was promoted to General Counsel, and in 1952 he became vice president and General Counsel.  During this period he oversaw all of General Insurance’s claims operations.  He also continued to direct the legal department and serve as general council.  He standardized claims forms and procedures company-wide. 

In 1953 Gordon Sweany was part of the team charged with developing a new name for General Insurance.  Their choice was SAFECO, an acronym for Selective Auto and Fire Insurance Company of America.  In 1966 he was named president of SAFECO, and in 1970 became chief executive officer. In 1977 he was elected chairman. 

An early proponent of the good customer service ethic, Sweany believed that the way an insurance company handled a claim made all the difference in the public mind between the character of one company and another.  Sweany insisted that SAFECO agents handle claims with personal warmth and that they make prompt settlement.

Community Service

Sweany was a member of the Seattle-King County Bar Association, the Washington Bar Association, and the American Bar Association, as well as the International Association of Insurance Council.  A member of the University Rotary, he served as president of that organization in 1949-1950. 

He belonged to the Rainier Club, the College Club, the Washington Athletic Club, and the University of Washington Alumni Association.  He served as president of the Economic Development Council of Puget Sound and on the boards of the Pacific Legal Foundation, Association of Washington Businesses, Washington State Council on Economic Education, and United Way of King County. 

He also served as chairman of the northwest region of the National Alliance of Businessmen.  That organization helped Vietnam veterans, disadvantaged youth, and ex-offenders seeking employment.  Sweany served as a member of the advisory boards of the Evergreen Safety Council, the University of Puget Sound Law School, Virginia Mason Hospital, and the University of Washington Graduate School of Business, among others.

From 1957 to 1958 Sweany served as president of the Foundation for International Understanding Through Students, an independent non-profit organization located at the University of Washington.  The Foundation’s mission is to enhance international understanding and promote cultural exchanges between international students attending the University of Washington and United States citizens. Gordon Sweany was a Foundation trustee from 1955 to 1958.  Alta Sweany also served as a trustee of the Foundation from 1958 to 1965.  The Sweany family’s commitment to this organization was long-term.  In 1986 SAFECO Corporation established the Gordon H. Sweany Award to honor Sweany’s memory.  The Sweany Award is presented annually to a University of Washington faculty or staff member for service to international students and international education.

U District in the Sixties

As president of SAFECO, a very visible presence in Seattle’s University District, Gordon Sweany was an active supporter of a 1969 attempt to keep the District safe, clean, and available for business.  With then-Mayor Wes Uhlman, University of Washington vice-president Ernie Conrad, and University District business leaders like Cal McCune, John Mitsules, and Andy Shiga, along with local churches, Sweany helped find funding for the University District Center and the Open Door Clinic.  Both organizations served the young people who congregated on University Way (the “Ave”).  The group also explored the idea of turning the “Ave” into a pedestrian mall closed to vehicular traffic.

On December 9, 1979, the Seattle-King County Association of Realtors selected Gordon Sweany to receive their prestigious annual First Citizen Award. The First Citizen Award honors outstanding personal contribution to the enrichment of the community.   The award was presented at a banquet at the Olympic Hotel on March 21, 1980.

In 1979 Gordon Sweany retired as chief executive of SAFECO.  He served as board chairman until 1981, remaining on the board of directors until September 1984.  Under Sweany’s leadership SAFECO grew into one of the 20 largest diversified financial corporations in the United States.

Gordon Sweany died on October 11, 1986.  He was 73 years old.

Sources: Who’s Who In Washington 1963 Century 21 Edition ed. by Bernice White (Olympia: Hugh L. White, 1963), p. 328; “Sweany Retires After 50 Years With Safeco,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 18, 1984; “Sweany To Retire, Trafton Elected Chairman,” The Seattle Times, May 7, 1981;  “Gordon Sweany Is ‘First Citizen,’” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 9, 1979; “Gordon Sweany Is ‘First Citizen,’ ” Ibid., March 22, 1980; “Gordon Sweany Dies; Former Safeco Chairman,” The Seattle Times, October 10, 1986; “About FIUTS: Timeline,” FIUTS Foundation For International Understanding Through Students website accessed April 18, 2005 (http://www.fiuts.washington.edu/aboutFIUTS/history.htm); Sid Copland, The SAFECO Story (Seattle: Safeco Insurance Companies, 1981); “The History of Lewis County, WA,” Rootsweb website accessed April 18, 2005 (http://ftp.rootsweb.com/pub/usgenweb/wa/lewis/history/lch-pt9.txt); Centralia College website accessed April 18, 2005 (http://www.centralia.ctc.edu/admin/pio/ newreleases/alumnisought.shtml); “Historical Features,” Folder 1, Box 1, Acc. No. 44221-1, Foundation For International Understanding Through Students (UW) (FUITS) Records 1948-1996, Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries, Seattle, Washington; Cal McCune, From Romance To Riot (Seattle: Cal McCune, 1996), 125; Walt Crowley, “Buddy, Can You Spare A Little Change For The Ave,” The Seattle Times, February 7, 2003; email from Charlotte Spang, Executive Director of Foundation for International Understanding Through Students, to author, May 3, 2005 in possession of author.

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