Cover photo for Rodger Clarence Swanson's Obituary
1944 Rodger 2024

Rodger Clarence Swanson

January 4, 1944 — May 24, 2024


Rodger Clarence Swanson, most recently of Munising, died on Friday, May 24, 2024, following a fall. Rodger was a farm boy from North Dakota who spent his years around the Great Lakes and the North Eastern harbors gleaning everything that he could about traditional wooden boats. If you know him, you know that he can speak a lot on the subject.

Rodger was born in Grand Forks, ND, on January 4, 1944, to Clarence Ordean and Grace Naomi (Spearman) Swanson. He was their firstborn and grew up strong and working with his hands in the rural farmland along US 2, in Arvilla, ND. He began his education in a one-room schoolhouse. He talked about taking a horsedrawn sleigh down to the highway to catch the bus to school in the winter. When it came time for him to go to high school, he started boarding school in Minnesota.

Rodger graduated from the University of North Dakota in 1966, with his Bachelor’s degree, followed shortly by a Master’s degree. He studied sociology and anthropology. He also attended Cooley Law School in Lansing, MI. Most of Rodger’s vocational life was spent helping people navigate life’s upsets. He provided counseling and worked to connect people with resources for independent and healthy living following injury and disability, employment disruptions, incarceration, and addiction and other brain health issues.

Rodger was devoted to the message of inclusion, hope and salvation in the Christian Gospel and letters of Paul. He viewed this life as an opportunity to care for and celebrate God’s creation. He resisted ideas of exploitation for personal gain and embraced sound stewardship of all we are given for the good of the greater family or community. He adored his faithful West Highland Terrier companion, Winnie, and had just welcomed her new puppy brother Oliver into the house.

As someone who worked hard to be in recovery himself for most of his adult life, the recovery communities of Alcoholics Anonymous were very important to Rodger wherever he lived. Even in these last few years of various health challenges, Rodger was committed to attending meetings for his own sake and in accompaniment with others doing the hard and sometimes messy work of staying sober. Recently, he helped start a new recovery support group focused on the difficult and essential fourth step of the Narcotics Anonymous program, which encourages one to make “a searching and fearless moral inventory.” That brutal honesty is essential to healing for addicts and those who love them, he would argue.

Rodger was an exceptional woodworker and artist. He built wooden canoes, boats and oars, waterfowl decoys and half models of boats that the family treasures. In the 1980s he built a large collection of versatile, rough-hewn wooden crates that appear all over the family landscape.

His love of wooden boats spans his entire life. He created the Swanson Boat Company to develop and provide traditional boating resources and teach people about traditional boating. He helped lead the All Hands On Deck organization in Green Bay, WI, which teaches young people about traditional boating. He was particularly interested in preserving the unique history of the Mackinac Boat, a key work boat used on the Great Lakes. His great claim to fame was as the only producer of marine tallow in the U.S.

In college Rodger met Karen Wills. They married and adopted two children together, Ian and Beth, while living in Saginaw, MI. Later in life, Rodger found himself farther east on US 2, working at War Memorial Hospital in Sault St. Marie, leading the substance abuse program. It was there he met Shirley Gonyea. Rodger and Shirley married in Manistique, MI, on June 19, 1981. Rodger gained three stepchildren that day, Ann, Sarah and Chris. In 1985, Rodger and Shirley welcomed their daughter Kate.  

Rodger was preceded in death by his parents Clarence and Grace Swanson, and his siblings-in-law Richard Troll, John Stapleton and Patricia Vanetta.

He is survived by his wife, Shirley Swanson of Munising, MI; his children the Rev. Ann Gonyea and Sarah Paradise, Round Lake Beach, IL, Christopher (Karen) Gonyea, Manistique, Ian (Shannon Richter) Swanson, Washington, DC, Elizabeth Swanson, Portland, OR, Katherine (Etienne) Nel, Palatine, IL; 11 grandchildren, Kimberly, Dano, Corey, Maxwell, Kelsy, Thomas, Jamie, Barnabas, Shiloh, Alida, and Katie; and four great-grandchildren, Zeddicus, Ephraim, Lilah and Rowan; siblings Betty (Bud) Olson, Grantsburg, WI, Mary Ann Troll,   Wyoming, MN, and Bruce (Julie) Swanson, Roanoke, VA; siblings-in-law Patrick and Bonnie Stapleton, Powhatan, VA; numerous nieces and nephews; and many friends.

Services will be held on Wednesday, July 17, 2024 in Munising.   Visiting time with family and friends will be from 11:00 a.m. until 1:00 p.m. at the Bowerman Funeral Home.   Rodger’s Memorial Mass will be held at Sacred Heart Church in Munising at 2:00 p.m.

To order memorial trees or send flowers to the family in memory of Rodger Clarence Swanson, please visit our flower store.

Service Schedule

Upcoming Services


Wednesday, July 17, 2024

11:00am - 1:00 pm (Eastern time)

Bowerman Funeral Home Inc

302 E Superior St, Munising, MI 49862

Enter your phone number above to have directions sent via text. Standard text messaging rates apply.


Wednesday, July 17, 2024

2:00 - 3:00 pm (Eastern time)

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