A life remembered: Parent educator Fran Swift known for her wise, gentle, and playful nature | Local News


Fran Swift was in her 50s when she began working at the Parenting Place in La Crosse, but her childlike enthusiasm and wonder were still very much intact, so much so that a humble twig could spark her interest.

“One of her strengths as an educator was reminding parents what kids need is simplicity — they need your attention, they need your love, they need simple ways to explore the world,” recalls Nell Saunders-Scott, a former patron and then staff member at The Parenting Place. “She loved sticks. She would tell people, ‘Just go on a walk with your kids. They’ll pick up a stick, they’ll throw it in a puddle, they’ll dig it in the dirt.’ I loved that she also would occasionally just pick up a good stick. She just kind of carried that joy of childhood through life.”

Swift, 76, died of a stroke May 13 during a visit to see her children and grandchildren in Massachusetts. She retired from The Parenting Place just last fall.

Born Frances Mary Proferes, Swift graduated from Bay Path College and met her husband, Dick, a photographer, while working as a flight attendant. Swift went on to teach elementary school students in Winona and then Connecticut, and settled in La Crosse in 1991 with Dick and their children, Aimee and Henry.

Swift began working at The Parenting Place, formerly called Family Resources, in 1998, serving as a parent educator, organizing the weekly Play Shoppe and running the annual Children’s Festival. She authored the children’s book “Old Blue Buggy” and was a firm believer in imaginative play, even when it meant getting a little messy. At The Children’s Place, Saunders Scott recalls, glitter was not off limits, and Henry, father of three with wife Sophie, says presents for the grandkids sparked creativity.

“Last Christmas she shipped us a ‘junk box’ full of various pieces of paper, egg cartons, jar lids and old household items she’d carefully collected,” Henry says. “She knew the kids would get more fun out of that than any other present, and she was right. She had faith that children would find a creative way to play with simple things, and that was her philosophy behind Play Shoppe and the Children’s Festival.”

With the Children’s Festival, Aimee adds, Swift “attempted to show people how simple things can delight children and that this is so good for them in this complicated world. A big pile of dirt can be endlessly entertaining, for example.”

Swift let the “inventor emerge” from children, Aimee says, helping to spark their dreams and be proud of their achievements. Swift knew how to truly listen to the youth she encountered, with an understanding of their needs and recognition of their feelings.

“She could set limits yet still allow them to feel heard,” Aimee says.

‘The heart and soul’ of The Parenting Place

Jodi Widuch, executive director of The Parenting Place, worked with Fran for over two decades, and calls her “the foundation, the touchstone, the heart and soul of that agency.”

“She had a presence about her, and a warmth. She was able to connect with anybody and everybody. She was a fast friend,” Widuch says. “She had a great, deep understanding of children, and she had a deep joy for parenting.”

During her 23 years at The Parenting Place, Swift saw the face and challenges of parenting evolve, with the rise of the new technology and social media. But no matter the question or obstacle, simple or complex, Swift found a way to offer support, Widuch says, and she truly loved her work.

When Saunders-Scott first came to The Parenting Place, she instantly taken with Swift’s welcoming presence

“She was so encouraging to parents. She just had this way of listening (and an) understanding of the challenges parents go through,” Saunders Scott says. “She’d share little bits of wisdom.”

Mike Scott, parent educator at The Parenting Place, worked with Swift for 5 years prior to her retirement and was a family friend of over three decades. Like Aimee, Henry and Saunders-Scott, he fondly recalls Swift’s gift for finding potential in a box, a milk jug, a dandelion, and her championing of free play.

“She would set scenes in our playroom that would invite curiosity and play but never saying to a child ‘you should do it this way or that way,’” Scott says. “If a child engaged through their own direction and initiative, then they would be swept off to world of their own imagination. You could actually see it physically. You would look at them and you could tell they had left our grown up reality and were now in a world constructed entirely of their own vision.”

Swift, Scott says, was a combination of wise, gentle and playful — “Everything about her was soft, welcoming and benevolent” — and she knew the ins and outs of child development.

“Fran understood that a tantrum was not disobedience but an outward expression of a child who was frustrated about not knowing how to act in a situation or how to deal with strong emotions,” Scott says. “That teaching would have to come later but, for now, the only thing needed is compassionate understanding.”

Scott likens Swift’s philosophy to that of Mr. Rogers: Love your child the way they are, for who they are, without conditions.

“Sometimes new parents would arrive at a program and confide in her that they were worried that their child was ‘weird’ or ‘socially awkward,’” Scott says. “And Fran’s response was always, ‘Perhaps, but isn’t it wonderful?’”

When Saunders-Scott became a colleague to Swift, in many ways she saw her the same way — inviting, warm, spirited — but also got to know her on more personal level, sharing stories about their own lives. Swift’s approach to children and parenting, Saunders Scott says, not only shaped the way she raised her children but has impacted “generations of our community … who will always be influenced by her and remember her.”

So great was the impression she made on the La Crosse community, Swift was selected as the Tribune’s Person of the Year in 2009. In Swift’s profile article, Widuch is quoted as saying, “I can’t think of another person who makes others feel better about being a parent.” Swift told the Tribune, “I know how much the parents I work with love their children. I’m filled with compassion for the parents I see and try to reach out to them.”

The Parenting Place, Widuch says, is “really fortunate our parent educators were able to learn from her. Her legacy will really continue in a lot of different ways.”

Of Swift’s decision to work well beyond the traditional retirement age, Widuch says, “There was a place for her here and she had purpose, and the parenting community continued to value her and learn so much from her.”

Memories of ‘Mom’

In her Person of the Year profile, Swift told the Tribune, “Our children have been central in our lives. We are still learning from them every day.”

Aimee, born in 1969, and Henry, born in 1985, describe her as compassionate, genuinely interested in others and a lover of good food. Her first thought, Henry says, was always of others, and she didn’t rest until everyone was comfortable, fed and tended to. Swift went out of her way, Aimee notes, to make people feel special and to show recognition for their contributions to the world.

Dick passed away in September 2021, and Swift was in Massachusetts for Mother’s Day weekend with her family when she suffered a fatal stroke. She had spent time with Henry’s three children and gone for a drive with Aimee around the area — her kids hoped she might move there, knowing while she loved La Crosse and her memories there with her husband, her friends and The Parenting Place, Swift also wanted to be near family.

Throughout the day of driving, dining and listening to music, Swift and Aimee talked about “all the possibilities. This was something we often did on our daily calls — talk about all of the possibilities in our lives, which breed of dog to get, which path to take at work, anything, everything.”

“When I dropped her off at my brother’s house seven hours later and gave her a hug goodbye, I had no idea it was the last time we would talk of these things,” Aimee says. “I miss her every day.”

Invited to name a favorite memory, Aimee shared not an event but the way her mom made her feel each and every day.

“It’s more a feeling of constant love and support, her always being there to talk and to listen, to remember and to celebrate, all the big and especially little moments of each day, each year, and my whole life up until now,” Aimee says. “That is what I remember of her the most.”

To share a favorite memory or parenting tip from Fran, visit https://www.theparentingplace.net/fran-swift/#commentform. Condolences to Fran’s family can be sent to The Parenting Place, 1500 Green Bay St., La Crosse, WI.

“She had a presence about her, and a warmth. She was able to connect with anybody and everybody. She was a fast friend. She had a great, deep understanding of children, and she had a deep joy for parenting.”

Jodi Widuch, executive director of The Parenting Place


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