116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — On the eve of his retirement, outgoing Hancher Executive Director Chuck Swanson’s biggest piece of advice he has offered to his successor, Andre Perry, is this:
“I just hope you embrace it and love it as much as I have.”
Calling Swanson the “outgoing” leader couldn’t be more appropriate. Transforming lives has been his driving force, and to that end, he’s been a visible presence at Hancher events, hugging, shaking hands and chatting with patrons, donors and audience members, as well as leading trips to New York City to see Broadway shows — especially those with Iowa ties.
On March 14, 2010, Swanson and more than 50 Hancher donors saw Iowa City native Alex Ko perform the title role in “Billy Elliot” on Broadway. Naturally, seeing their hometown boy was the highlight, Swanson said shortly after returning to Iowa City that year.
"The people were just blown away," he said. "They didn't realize what a star he was. There was not a dry eye in the house at the end. I've seen a lot of Broadway shows and I have never been so drawn into a show as I was with 'Billy Elliot' on Broadway, because we met this wonderful boy, this little gentleman who grew up in Iowa City.“
The Hancher group met with Ko at two receptions, including one following his matinee performance.
"I have never seen anybody at that age be so poised, so unassuming," Swanson said at the time. "The first thing out of his mouth was, 'I want to help raise money for the new Hancher.’”
Fast forward to a recent Gazette interview, and Swanson still is quoting Ko. “He said, ‘Hancher inspired me to want to perform on Broadway.’” That’s the transformational effect Swanson championed.
During his tenure, Swanson, 69, of Coralville, often cited the words of former UI President Willard “Sandy” Boyd, who deemed Hancher “the university’s largest classroom.”
Swanson has taken that to heart. His hallmark has been connecting students and audiences with artists from around the world; building bridges of understanding across academic disciplines, cultures and life experiences; and inspiring young people to see what the UI has to offer and what performance careers can look like, as they worked the shows, attended master classes and performed side by side with the Joffrey Ballet and stage and screen stars Kristin Chenoweth and Leslie Odom Jr., to name just a few.
Those are the efforts for which Swanson hopes to be remembered as he leaves his office July 8.
“I always go back to the same thing, because that's really what it is — just my love of people,” he said. “That's what it is in a nutshell. …
“Usually, retirements are measured in numbers of years of service, and I just want mine to be measured with the friends — not the number of friends, but just the friendships.”
Nowhere was that more evident than on Thursday night, when 350 invited guests gathered at Hancher Auditorium to celebrate his career and milestones. They hugged him in the lobby; cheered and gave him several standing ovations during more than an hour of speeches, videos and a joyous performance by Terrance Simien and The Zydeco Experience in the auditorium; and hugged him even more during a reception afterward in the Stanley Cafe.
Time and again, those on stage and video cited his devotion to Hancher; his positive attitude during the prolonged rebuilding process after the 2008 flood destroyed the original building; how he has ushered Hancher programming around the state; and how he has been a role model for other arts presenters across the country.
Hancher’s business model changed dramatically when then-UI President Bruce Harreld announced in July 2020 that $1.5 million in annual salary support to Hancher would be phased out incrementally over three years, with the goal of making the world-renown arts presenter self-sufficient after 2022-23, its 50th season.
Swanson said that was his sign that he needed to step aside to let someone “with a fresh eye” guide this shift from what he called “transformative” to “transactional” operations.
He said retirement from the $205.500 position was his idea; that no one from the UI suggested it.
“It was my decision,” he said. “And it was my decision from the standpoint (that) I've faced a lot of challenges over the years. I love a good challenge if it's reasonable, and if I think I can make it happen. …
“I like to do the best I can. And I like to have things that will kind of come in front of you, and you've got to find a way to still make it happen. And I've had a great staff — the staff has been so supportive and so helpful, too,” he added.
“But it finally came to the point — a lot of it was the budget issue — that I want the best for Hancher. I really do, because of my love (is) so deep for that place. I want Hancher to do the best it can.”
He felt stepping aside was the best way proceed “because I fully understood for the university that (the budget cut) was not going to change. (Retirement) was my idea, it was my decision. And it was not an easy decision — it was a tough decision.
“I told people I've been through mourning. (Hancher) is something that will always be in my heart. I've always tried to do my best to position Hancher as an asset to our university, because I love our university, too.”
Because he feels collaboration is one of Hancher’s strong suits, he had hoped to work with the UI on a way to move through the economic challenges of the pandemic that shut the building’s doors from mid-March 2020 until September 2021. But that was not to be.
“We were lower than a snake anyway, because of the pandemic,” he said, “and then to get the word about the budget … was real hard. … The timing was very difficult. In any time it would have been tough, but that was a low enough time anyway. … It was done in a way that was just kind of heartless,” he said.
He wishes he would have had the chance to work with the university to find a solution without slashing its financial support.
“There’s ways to go about it, and there's ways to work together,” he said. “What I've always loved about Hancher is that we always try to take a situation — we as a staff — and no matter how bad it is, we try to rise above it.”
Just this week, however, a UI spokeswoman said the university now may not do away completely with its support for its new Office of Performing Arts and Engagement that centers around Hancher, although what that dollar amount may be was not divulged.
Jack Evans of Cedar Rapids had just graduated from the UI with an MBA in 1972 before the original Hancher was built, and he was on the Board of Regents when the decision was made to rebuild after the flood. He’s optimistic about Hancher’s ability to move through budget cuts and keep funds rolling in to sustain it.
“I think Hancher itself will keep it going,” said Evans, who has a long history in finance, and serves as chairman of the board of the Hall-Perrine Foundation, a private philanthropic organization. “It’s the largest classroom at the university, and has enormous support in the state of Iowa.
“If Andre can have half the sincerity and energy that Chuck does, it will do well. I’ve known him in other lives and he’s a very capable person. … He’s a great professional, and I think he’ll do a terrific job.
“And you know, deep down, I really feel the university is going to make this work. What form that takes, I don’t know, but I really feel the university is going to make this continue to excel,” Evans said.
Flood of 2008
Swanson led Hancher through its darkest days, when the Iowa River raged through the UI arts campus, flooding the original Hancher in June 2008. Swanson and staff would spend the next eight years staging Hancher experiences in other area venues and across Iowa, before the new $176 million state-of-the-art building’s rolling reveal in September 2016 that reeled in more than 20,000 people.
First came public open houses Sept. 9 and 11, 2016, drawing 9,000 visitors. Next came the Preservation Hall Jazz Band — the ensemble that christened the original Hancher stage on Sept. 27, 1972 — and Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, heating up the night for 8,000 people packing the Hancher Green in front of the new building on Sept. 16, 2016. And then the doors flung open Sept. 24, 2016, for a gala celebration featuring Steve Martin and Martin Short that filled the new Hancher’s 1,800 seats.
Hancher, named after the late Virgil Hancher, the UI’s 13th president and a champion of the arts, rose above the fetid waters, and in the end, came out ahead.
“When the flood happened … it was dire,” Swanson said, but with news coverage around the country, "we were getting donations from people all over. But (for) our university, the news was not good. But what did (Hancher) do? We came out with a theme of ‘Can't Contain Us.’ We rose above it as a staff. … We always tried to find the positive. To me, that's a lot of what Hancher is — that joy.”
Swanson’s history with the building goes back to the original auditorium’s opening in fall 1972, during his sophomore year.
To bookend his Hancher experiences, the first show he saw there was “The Music Man,” on opening night Nov. 9, 1972, when composer/creator Meredith Willson was in the audience. “That night, knowing that he was there was really pretty cool,” Swanson said. And on June 11 this year, Swanson and a group of Hancher donors saw “The Music Man” on Broadway.
Growing up in Spencer in northwest Iowa, his parents took him to plays, so he fell in love with Hancher as a UI student. Little did he know, that after graduating with an MBA in finance in 1976, he would return just a few years later.
He spent his early years in banking until he bought a Des Moines Register and saw an ad for a business manager at Hancher.
“That was my lucky day, and like (wife) Kim said, it was meant to be.”
He got the job, resuming his Hancher journey on July 15, 1985. He became assistant director March 14, 1988; associate director July 1, 1991; co-director Sept. 1, 2002; and executive director June 1, 2009.
He’s not sure what lies ahead during his retirement, but with a new grandchild on the way, the father of three is looking forward to having more family time.
“My family has been, of course, a big part of my life,” he said, but missing very few Hancher events has kept him tied up for decades. “And all of a sudden now, to have that freedom to be able to be there for our girls, who could say no to that?”
He’s been working on an oral history project for Hancher, recording various donors reflecting on what the institution means to them. It’s an effort he hopes will continue after he steps down.
Otherwise, he’s looking back on his Hancher journey as “a labor of love.”
“I'm very proud that I'm leaving Hancher better than when I got it. And I’m leaving it in such a good way that I'm anxious to see where things go.”
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