Forever in love, together entwined
By Miriam Orr
Clare Swenson's smile is bright, as she opens the door and outstretches a hand.
"We literally just stepped through the door," she explains. "Excuse the mess. We just got in from Arizona last night, and we both just got home from work. We're a little behind."
Leading up the stairs, in a tastefully decorated living area and kitchen, Clare sidesteps around travel oddities and shuffles aside an untouched stack of the weekly mail. She offers a seat at a breakfast nook just out of the kitchen.
Her husband, Jeff, is milling about somewhere downstairs, which she says is not unusual.
"He's always doing something," she laughs. "Have to keep busy, right?"
It's not long after Clare settles into her seat that Jeff grabs one for himself and sits down next to her; ready to discuss the couple's 28-years-in-making life together. Before discussing the details of how they came to be, however, they first shared about themselves in the present.
Jeff Swenson, by his own admission, has a pretty professional history. He has a military background, having served four years in the Marines right out of high school, where he was enlisted as an infantryman. On top of that, Jeff served as a volunteer firefighter for Buffalo's Fire Department for almost a decade. "Somewhere in there," he remembered, he also worked for the city of Buffalo as an engineering technician for 12 years.
However, what is perhaps Jeff's biggest professional passion – and what has made his career what it is – is serving with the National Guard's 851st Vertical Engineer Company (VEC), based out of Camp Ripley, Georgia, where he is an E6 Staff Sergeant. Jeff enlisted with the National Guard in Dec. of 2007, where he "builds buildings up," and sees to a variety of tradework such as masonry, carpentry, plumbing, and others.
"Most our work goes into making improvements for Camp Ripley itself," Jeff explained. "When we get called out, however, we really go into situations where improvements are necessary. When you have guys sleeping under trucks and in the sand, we go in and work on building barracks, latrine improvements, mess halls – we really establish a settlement of people."
When he's not working on the job as a vertical engineer, Jeff's unit also assists in other ways. Some of his fellowmen had volunteered to assist with Super Bowl LII security, and they've been involved with floods in the Red River Valley, and other areas affected by natural disasters.
Jeff hasn't been in combat, however – a fact both he and Clare are thankful for.
"I call it hearts and minds stuff," Jeff stated. "A lot of what we do is going and building military relations overseas and assisting other people. I describe it as building improvements for the hearts and minds of people, versus building for empirical gain."
For Jeff, however, it's not just about serving in uniform. He stated that his purpose and passion in life is serving other people in a way that matters. As an engineer, and a man with military understanding and history, he thought that serving through the National Guard would be the best way to channel that desire to serve.
"It really began when we moved out of Buffalo and Jeff couldn't serve as a volunteer Firefighter anymore," Clare started. "He needed a way to serve other people – he needed a way to give back. The National Guard just made logical sense."
Jeff fulfills his desire to service communities by not only working in the National Guard on a professional level, but also by stepping into a mentoring role for the young people who enlist around him. It provides him a unique opportunity to mentor young people not only on the job, but also as a fellow man.
Clare, however, takes a different approach to passion. Currently, Clare works at Citizens State Bank in Montrose, where she is a Customer Relations Specialist. Her journey there, however, consisted of a few different avenues.
Clare graduated Luther College (Iowa) with a degree in Marketing/Communications, where she began work at St. Francis Hospital in July of 1988. After spending 18 years working with clients in Marketing and Communications, Clare stated that she began to wonder if her work was really benefiting the people she was working for.
From there, she left the industry and opened her own out-of-home-business, where she provided marketing and communications services from a magazine standpoint. She would go on to do so for 10 years. She stated that by serving others from performing day-to-day tasks, she felt like she was fulfilling her need to be beneficial to others. Outside of working, she volunteered for church, and in schools.
"Work wasn't just about the job. It was about relationships with people," Clare said. "I wanted it to be relational and personal; I wanted to serve while working professionally."
Her passion, she stated, evolved as her life progressed. "At first I didn't want kids – I wanted to climb the ladder and be a career gal. But then, after Jeff and I were married, I got pregnant on accident and all that changed. Family became the purpose of my life, and what was important to me."
Jeff and Clare are parents to Nate and Nick, who are now grown with families of their own. Clare stepped away from working outside of the home for a short period of time, in favor of being home with her children. In 2006, she went back to working out in the professional world, where she worked as a car salesman, and eventually, sold insurance.
"I loved it. It was meaningful, and I got to build relationships with people as I worked," Clare remembered. "It was a break from marketing and communications that I needed."
In 2010, Clare left the insurance business in favor of banking at Citizens State Bank. She is in her eighth year of banking, and "absolutely adores it." Clare commented that the immediate gratification of helping customers with a direct, "hands-on approach" satisfies her desire to help people.
It all began on Sept. 17, 1989. Clare rattled off the date as if it had written on her hand.
"We met at the Renaissance Festival," she laughed as she remembers. "Jeff had just finished with the Marines and had gone to Dunwoody College of Technology. We both decided to volunteer on the same day in different booths."
From there, it escalated. Clare's group had decided it was time for Fair snacks, and had made the group choice to "track down and find" some infamous cheese curds. Clare was voted to go on the mission for snacks.
"I didn't know where they were," she recalled. "So I stopped at this booth and asked this guy, who just so happened to be really cute."
That guy was Jeff, and unfortunately for Clare, he didn't have any idea about where to find cheese curds. Clare stated that she thanked him nicely, and went off in search of snacks.
She ended up finding them, and bringing them back to her group of girlfriends. "They'd been trying to get me matched up on a date for almost a year, and I wasn't having it. So when I mentioned a cute guy, they sprang on it."
Awhile later, after refusing to go out and track down Jeff again, one of the group's chaperones had decided, executively, that "it was time for more cheese curds." Of course, Clare wasn't about to volunteer again, so she and her chaperone set off for more curds.
They just so happened to stop by Jeff's booth.
"She got to talking to one of the guys working with Jeff, and I was just left standing there," Clare grinned as she remembered the memory. "So Jeff and I started chatting as he was going back and forth, working his booth. It was a good while before I found out I was alone at the booth with him, and decided to leave to go and help shut down with my friends."
"She made it pretty obvious that she liked me." Jeff inserted.
After they closed down their booths, Clare said she met him again when they turned in their costumes. They ran into each other and started chatting again, and by the end of their conversation, had decided to go out.
"It was like two dates after that, that we knew we were going to get married," Jeff said. "We asked those fundamental questions and made sure the foundation for a potential relationship would be equal and strong, and once we ascertained that, we knew."
They started dating in late September of 1989, and were married in July of 1990.
Life together, now
Jeff and Clare credit the success of their marriage to their faith in God, and the strong start they had as a couple. When asked, Jeff stated that it's important for young people to determine their "five pillars," or, qualities and characteristics that an individual will not compromise on. For them, a like faith, similar views in politics, and family were important, to name a few.
"For us, we had similar beliefs and family values on both sides," Clare shared. "It was a good foundational base of information that we gave one another on that first date. We discovered that our values were the same and that we had so many similarities – to me, Jeff felt like home."
Jeff said, "Figure out the non-negotiables, first. There's not a lot of time to waste in a relationship before feelings start to develop, and that makes it harder to end a relationship if they don't work out. People change and evolve, so you need to make sure there is unity before you get married."
Clare and Jeff both commented that if they had found huge differences in each others' "non-negotiables," they probably wouldn't have gotten married – or, they would've divorced a long time ago.
"It's about caring for one another and every so often checking in, making sure you understand their stance on a big issue," Claire explained. "Every once and awhile I'll bring up a big political topic or a theological question, just to say 'Hey, what do you think about this?' It keeps communication open."
"That is one of the biggest things," Jeff continued. "Communication. You can't get upset with a spouse if you don't tell them anything. In marriage, the two are to become one, according to the vows and what the Bible dictated at the beginning of time. I always tell the guys in the Guard when they're talking about significant others in a less-than-flattering way, 'Why are you doing that to yourself?' That always makes them stop and think."
Together in love, forever entwined
Clare gestured to the necklace she was wearing around her neck, which was a small, delicate silver spoon with two hearts entwined at the top. She went on to explain that on their 25th wedding anniversary, she had visited Wales and learned the history of the unique spoon necklaces – because there, in Wales, they had a specific meaning.
"The lady selling them explained to me that the two hearts represent lovers and being entwined forever. The spoon, in years past, was a part of the courting custom – a man would whittle a spoon and present it as an offering for marriage. So, the two hearts represent being forever in love, while also being forever entwined. When I was there, I knew I had to get this. I knew it represented us."
The necklace isn't the only special memoir of their life together. Clare stated that every year, Jeff takes a large, colored leaf and cuts a heart out of the middle and presents it to her - a tradition that has been going on since they met.
"It's just something special that he does every once and awhile to remind me," Clare said. "It's a token of our love, for sure."
Currently, Clare and Jeff make their home in Buffalo, and love spending time with their four grandkids, and also frequently visiting family in Arizona.
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