Howard “Howie” Swaim, 51, an artist, entrepreneur and real estate agent who lived in Washington and grew up in Rappahannock County – a place his friends say he loved like no other – died unexpectedly at home Saturday.
Swaim’s family and friends say they will gather at 11 a.m. Saturday, April 7, at Griffin Tavern in Flint Hill, a place the singularly charismatic Swaim could often be found – playing chess, meeting or making friends in what came to be known to many as “Howie’s Corner,” in the Tavern’s bar. His brother, Chuck Swaim, said Rev. Jenks Hobson will preside over a memorial tribute, followed by what the elder Swaim described as “a celebration of his life.”
Swaim moved with his family to Rappahannock as a young child, attended Randolph-Macon Academy and graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University with a bachelor of fine arts. A protege of renowned cartoonist and Rappahannock resident Jeff MacNelly, Swaim took a job shortly after graduation as an art director at the Los Angeles Times. Except for that brief, four-year stay in California – after which, Chuck Swaim said, his brother told him, “It just wasn’t for me” – Swaim’s life was spent in Rappahannock and, as they all will tell you, among friends.
“He was the George Bailey of Rappahannock,” said Amber Johnson, who with fiance Scott Montgomery were among Swaim’s closest friends, referring to the character in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” “He’d laugh about it, too. George Bailey, the richest man in town, because he had friends. We gave him a gift one birthday that actually had pictures of him and our family, and we just said, ‘To the richest man in town.’”
“And he knew what it meant,” added Montgomery.
“And he hung it in his bedroom, actually,” said Johnson. “This is gonna be hard without him. It’s a little less bright in the world.”
“I just want everyone to know how special Howie was – to every single person that he met,” said friend Mary Soldierson in a voice mail message Tuesday night, left to also let his friends know that she’s looking after Swaim’s beloved dog – named Bailey. “And how much he absolutely adored Rappahannock County, and always talked about the virtues of living here, and being from here.”
“Howie was the most selfless person,” said Ronnie Gregorio, who met Swaim at the Griffin Tavern when she arrived to tend bar there in 2005; the two wound up a couple, until about a year ago. “He would give anyone who needed it the energy he had. He was so generous to people. I don’t know if he could do that as well for himself.”
Mongomery said Swaim was a constant visitor to his and Amber’s home on Fodderstack Road.
“He’d come to our house, he’d pull in, and all the kids would go runnin’, ‘Howie’s here!’” Montgomery said. “And he’d come busting through the door and say, ‘What’s up Montgomerys!’”
Johnson adds: “He said the same thing every time he came through the door – which was three or four times a week, if not every day.”
“It’s going to be hard not to hear that,” said Montgomery.
Swaim is preceded in death by his father, Charles Bagby Swaim, and younger brother, Gregory Whitney Swaim. He is survived by his brother, Chuck, and sister-in-law Linda, of Richmond, and their two daughters, Whitney and Katie; his stepmother Jinnie Raney of Amissville, his birth mother, Donna Lang, of Fairfax Station, and his dear Yorkshire terrier, Bailey.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the Gregory W. Swaim Memorial Flight Scholarship Fund (gregoryswaim.bbnow.org).