Seated smack-dab in the middle of some freshly minted Montana State University Billings graduates on April 28 was Clark Swan. Like many others, he walked off the stage that day with a bachelor’s degree, some memories as an involved student and a sense of accomplishment.
Never mind the fact that it started it all when Lyndon Johnson was president.
Swan is a 63-year-old history major, a member of the MSU Billings Yellowjacket golf team and a dedicated student. His journey to a degree may have taken 40 years, but it was worth the time.
“The history department has been fantastic to me,” he said recently. “They were pushing me and pulling me in their classes. It’s been an enjoyable experience for me.”
Swan, who grew up in Billings, moved to Denver with his family during his high school years and returned after graduation, starting college in Billings at what was then Eastern Montana College in 1967. He walked on to play a bit of football and took some classes as part of a pre-dental program. After a rough patch with grades, he dropped out and got a job in sales and marketing.
He left for Colorado in 1970 with a new wife and a new job, but 35 credits short of a degree. He stayed connected to MSU Billings after moving back to the area in the 1980s and did some volunteer work keeping stats for the basketball team. He didn’t give his education much thought, however.
When his wife was diagnosed with dementia at the age of 55 and needed more care, Swan started thinking more about his future.
“I knew I needed to re-invent myself, but I didn’t know how,” he said. “I thought about the two-year program and computers, but didn’t feel that was the right fit.”
Then one day in the late fall of 2010 – wandering about the trophy cases at Alterowitz Gym and reflecting on the past – he was given an idea about being a student-athlete. A former coach urged him to check his eligibility and discuss possibilities of playing with golf coach Shawn O’Brien. Swan did the research, filled out the appropriate paperwork and sought out the coach last fall.
“I just said, ‘Coach O’Brien, can I leave this with you?’” Swan said. “I didn’t have any great expectations, but I wanted to leave my information with him and see how it worked out.”
Getting some athlete interest from a non-traditional student is nothing unusual, but being approached by someone who could be his father took O’Brien by surprise.
“I thought it was the craziest thing I ever heard,” the coach said. “I thought at first he wanted to help be an assistant coach or something. But he wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
So O’Brien made a deal with Swan: He would the grandfather-student-athlete that he would consider putting him on the 22-member university golf team if Swan could “hold your own” in match play and find amicable relationships with other members of the team. For O’Brien, team chemistry is important and he “wanted to keep good things going.”
“And the more that I got to know Clark, the more I found he was a standout guy,” the coach said. Not only could he drive the ball 280 yards from the back of the tee box and consistently putt, Swan attended all the early-morning weight trainings, all the study table sessions and practices.
“He does everything the right way, just like he was 18,” O’Brien said. “He even calls me ‘coach.’”
The same passion Swan put into his golf game was infused in his studies.
“In the classroom, he is a gem!” said Dr. Matt Redinger, professor and chairman of the department of history at MSU Billings. “He’s front-and-center when it comes to class participation — his perspectives have proven beneficial not only in regards to the readings we’re looking at on any particular day, but the depth of his experience that comes from years is especially important in my U.S. history classes.”
For the immediate future, Swan will have to deal with a stint of fame: The Golf Channel will feature him in a special sometime later this spring. He has gained notoriety for becoming what is believed to be the oldest golfer in NCAA history.
Further down the road he will need to decide how to use his degree and experience gained at MSU Billings. He was been accepted into a 12-month intercollegiate athletics leadership master’s degree program at the University of Washington. But that program costs about $30,000 and taking out student loans at the age of 63 can be a bit risky.
Swan said his wife has the care she needs now and would relocate to Seattle for a year and live with his son if he pursues the next level of education. If that doesn’t work, he said, he plans to tour the Lewis and Clark trail by bicycle.
“This has been a unique opportunity,” he said.