New York Times Magazine  9/ 9/1979

Every city has its “prominent families” whose male progeny are called scions and whose “good name” ranks among its civic land­marks. In Omaha, Nebraska, the first among those families has always been the Swansons. The name Swanson commanded as much influence and respect in Omaha as Chandler in Los An­geles or Dupont in Wilmington. Most notably, the family gave America the TV Dinner; the Swansons were as much a factor of Nebraska life as Cornhusker football or horizons that run westward in a seemingly infinite flat line.

Omaha has no first family anymore, and this is the story about how that came to pass. Omaha has no first family anymore, and this is the story about how that came to pass.

Carl A. Swanson established the family in Omaha, ar­riving in 1896 at age 17, with a tag around his neck read­ing: “Carl Swanson, Swedish. Send me to Omaha. I speak no English.” Three years later, Carl Swanson owned a wholesale food company handling eggs, milk and poultry. The business had assets of $456 in working capital, plus one wagon and one horse.

He showed a natural gift for the food business. In the late 1920’s, he steered his company into the fledgling food-processing industry; he became the first Middle Western dealer in chickens to recognize the importance of newly patented quick-freezing methods, the first to automate plucking and gutting, the first to mass produce separated and powdered eggs. By the time of his death in 1949, he had parlayed his original investment into owner­ship of C.A. Swanson and Sons, grossing $60 million a year. He was hailed as the big­gest butter-and-eggs man in the country. 

Carl Swanson was simple, loyal, honest, hardworking, with an abiding faith in progress through enterprise and ingenuity. In that coinci­dence, the underpinnings of the family legend were laid. Eventually, Swanson would become a symbol of the Ameri­can Dream as well as a synonym for the virtues of Omaha. The family name would grace, among other structures, an Omaha public library, an ele­mentary school and a Creigh­ton University dormitory.

Carl Swanson raised his sons, Gilbert C. and W. Clarke, in accordance with the de­mands of his own stature. Ac­cording to “The Swanson Story,” the official family his­tory published in 1977 by the Carl and Caroline Swanson Foundation, Gilbert and Clarke served “arduous” and “bruising” apprenticeships.

Gilbert C. Swanson was the eldest and the first to advance through the workings of the family business. Along the way, he married Roberta Ful­bright, sister of former United States Senator J. William Ful­bright, and had two sons, Gilbert Jr. and Jay F., and two daughters, Patricia Caroline and Helen Carla. Three of those siblings would much later face each other in Fed­eral court.

The brothers Gilbert and Clarke were a well-matched team who seemed to have in­herited their father’s talent for anticipating major changes in their industry. Their introduc­tion of frozen Chicken Pot Pie in 1951 proved their aptitude. Success followed success in 1953 when the company brought out a heat-and-serve frozen turkey dinner, com­plete with mashed potatoes and gravy, all packed in an aluminum tray. Swanson and sons obtained a trademark for the name “TV Dinner,” and C.A. Swanson was on its way to becoming a household name.

With these successes, the second-generation brothers reconfirmed the family’s leg­end and its hold on Omaha. They also seemed to satisfy their own needs to follow the high-pressure path carved out by their father. In 1955, the brothers sold C.A. Swanson and Sons to the Campbell Soup Company for a large block of Campbell’s stock. They re­tained no further connection to TV Dinners, though the Swan­son name remained on the label. The family business was renamed Swanson Enter­prises, a holding company for stock, real estate, foundations, family trusts and smaller companies worth millions.

They held positions of lead­ership in local charitable or­ganizations, and they enter­tained lavishly. The Omaha World-Herald told of one gala given by Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert C. Swanson: Some 300 guests attended the “Hawaiian Eve­ning” at the Omaha Country Club; 70 tons of sand trans­formed the patio into a beach, complete with live palm trees brought in from the West Coast.

Throughout their lives, Gil­bert and Clarke were accorded a special deference in Omaha. Flights were held up for them at local airports, and institu­tions from Creighton Univer­sity to the Strategic Air Com­mand honored them with awards for civic service.

W. Clarke Swanson died in 1961, and gradually his heirs left the area for successful ca­reers elsewhere. The reins of the Omaha-based family busi­ness then passed to Gilbert and the male half of his line. Gilbert died of cancer seven years later. He had kept the legend green. The family’s known stock holdings in Campbell Soup, Coca-Cola and Yellow Freight Systems Inc. alone would have brought more than $100 million on today’s market.

After Gilbert’s funeral, The Omaha World-Herald acknowledged the city’s debt to the first two generations of the Swanson family and “their remarkable legacy.” It also assured its readers that the death of Gilbert “does not mean the name is fading from Omaha. There are sons and daughters … who can be part of the rising generation of Omaha lead­ership.”

That was not to be. The reasons lead back to the large stone mansion, flanked by servants quarters, at 412 North Elmwood Road in Omaha, where Gilbert Sr. and his family lived.

According to a source close to the family, Gilbert Sr. and his wife, Rober­ta, had engaged in long, hysterical bat­tles that the children witnessed and, on occasion, participated in. Mrs. Swan­son is said to have had what was called an alcohol “problem.” She developed cirrhosis of the liver and spent increas­ing amounts of time at hospitals in Omaha and New York.

The antagonism spread, developing between Gilbert Jr. and his sister Pa­tricia. Ten years her senior, Gibby, as he was called, tended to lord it over her and the other siblings. She has told friends that sometimes he struck her and once chased her with a butcher knife. (Gilbert Swanson Jr. has de­clined to speak to The Times about this or any other aspect of his family’s his­tory.)

Gilbert Swanson Sr. responded to the turmoil in his household by withdraw­ing. When he came home from work, he would often lock himself in his study, setting off elaborate shouting scenes as his wife sought to gain entrance. This came to an abrupt end in the fall of 1959. On Oct. 21, her daughter Patricia’s 14th birthday, Roberta Fulbright Swanson was found unconscious in New York and rushed to a hospital emergency room. Within five minutes of her arriv­al, two uniformed New York City po­licemen had been sent to fetch the chief neurosurgeon with a message from Mayor Robert Wagner that Senator Fulbright’s sister was in the hospital and everything possible should be done for her. Nevertheless, the doctors’ ef­forts failed. Mrs. Swanson, 48, died that day of the effects of a 107-degree fever stemming from unspecified “natural” causes. 

After being widowed, Gilbert Sr. con­tinued to run the business much as be­fore. And he continued to run the family as well. He was regarded as a loving but distant and demanding father, com­municating with his children by memo carried by messenger from the Swan­son Building. He used preprinted forms with each of the children’s names on a check list. His daughters were expected to be attractive and quiet and to ignore those parts of life they weren’t “smart enough” to understand, like money and business; his sons were expected to be strong, successful and at the same time submissive to his wishes. The Swansons were a patriarchy and Gilbert Sr. attempted to train his sons to fill his shoes.

After graduation from a private high school in Minnesota, Gibby, the eldest, enlisted in the United States Navy and rose to the rank of Quartermaster Third Class before being honorably dis­charged in 1959. Back in Omaha, Gibby married and began working at Samar­dick Enterprises, an armored car and security firm in which his father held a large interest. Gibby manned an ar­mored car, rode patrol and eventually became a trained polygraph operator – before his promotion to president shortly before his father’s death. In later years, Gibby would look back upon his time on patrol with Samardick as some of the happiest days of his life.

Jay Fulbright Swanson, the younger brother, began his business career as a director of sales with a Swanson-owned coffee company in Houston, Tex. Jay was the most physically impressive of the children. Well over six feet tall, he was heavily muscled, the result of years of weight-lifting since adoles­cence. According to one of his childhood friends, Jay took up the regimen to stop his older brother from pushing him around. Even so, Jay would forever re­main an intimidated person. 

In the late 50’s, when Gilbert Sr. sold the coffee company where his younger son was working, Jay returned to Omaha. He lived with his wife within walking distance of North Elmwood Road, and he became a stockbroker – but not a very competent one. He had few clients, and on several occasions, when he caused them to lose money, he had to be persuaded not to replace the loss from his own personal funds. Jay Swanson was a disappointment to his father and felt the disappointment strongly.

The first open break between Gilbert Sr. and his children was precipitated by his eldest daughter, Patricia, when she was secretly married at 18 in 1964 to a man named Howard Feldman. Upon learning of the marriage, her father had family lawyer Cecil A. Johnson, a Department of Agriculture official in the New Deal, draw a financial agree­ment, called the 1964 Patricia Trust. In this trust agreement, the eldest Swan­son daughter, intimidated as always by her father, signed over her potential in­herited claim to control over a full quarter of her parents’ assets to the officers of the trust: lawyer Cecil A. Johnson and accountant Gerald E. Sa­wall. Her younger sister Carla, a prep­ school student at the time of Patricia’s marriage, would later sign similar papers. In this fashion, control of the Swanson money was given to the male line and a small group of family retain­ers, an arrangement that would end up being challenged during the family’s final fall from grace.

Patricia’s marriage ended in divorce in 1965, and she apparently worked out her differences with her father. Accord­ing to sources close to the family, she returned regularly to Omaha from her home in California to help care for him.

The day after Gilbert Sr.’s death. the children were in­formed in general terms about their father’s estate by Cecil Johnson. The inheritance was reportedly called “a lot of money,” and they were as­sured that they would have no financial worries.

After the ordeal of the fu­neral was over, Gibby, a bald­ish 31-year-old, prepared to take over the reins as the el­dest Swanson male. But Jay, 28, sank into depression, fi­nally checking into Omaha’s St. Joseph’s Hospital, where he sought to pull himself to­gether and shake a habit of barbiturate abuse.

Within a week of her father’s funeral, Patricia, 22, married her second husband in a cere­mony in the living room at 412 North Elmwood Road. Three months later, Carla married John Baker, a former professional football player, and moved to Houston, Tex., where Baker became a suc­cessful investor.

Over the rest of that year, each of Gilbert Swanson’s heirs signed a mountain of legal papers and estate docu­ments prepared by the family lawyers. Ten years later in Federal court, Carla and Pa­tricia would claim that they had done so with misleading or incomplete information. Pa­tricia’s allegedly blind endorsements included an ad­dendum to her trust making Gibby a trustee and allowing Gibby and Jay to draw cash from her portion of one of the family’s trusts.

Round-faced family lawyer Cecil Johnson presided over the transfer of power to the third generation. Gilbert Sr.’s estate generated total legal fees in excess of $800,000. Some $325,000 of that sum went to Johnson himself for “office ex­penses.”

For Johnson, as it was for the rest of the family members and retainers, that office was in the Swanson Building at 8401 West Dodge Road, a wide two-story rectangle that looks somewhat like an automotive air cleaner. The structure had been built as the second gener­ation’s monument to their suc­cess. The largest office had been Gilbert Sr.’s and Gilbert Jr. lost little time in occupying it. Shortly thereafter, the new president of Swanson Enter­prises created the instrument with which he planned to make his personal perch in the Pantheon of the family legend. It was incorporated in late 1968 as Johnny’s American Inn, Inc.

Johnny’s American Inn was originally planned as the par­ent corporation for a chain of franchise restaurants de­signed to capitalize on the name of television star and Nebraska native..Johnny Car­son. During the initial discus­sions on the subject in the boardroom at 8401 West Dodge, the chain was envi­sioned as a kind of “gourmet hamburger sit-down restau­rant.” Before the end of 1968, Gilbert and brother Jay had put up $1 million of Swanson money to capitalize the idea. Gilbert was named president; Jay, vice president; Cecil Johnson, secretary, and Ger­ald Sawall, treasurer. Chair­man of the board was to be Johnny Carson.

Carson had known of the Swanson family since he first broke into television at WOW- 1V in Omaha. When a friend approached him with the news that the Swansons had a busi­ness proposition, he agreed to talk and, eventually, to serve as chairman. His duties were to appear at no fewer than five restaurant grand openings a year, in exchange for $37,500 a year and a block of stock later estimated by corporate offi­cials to be a 15-percent inter­est.

The first of the “Here’s Johnny’s” restaurants was scheduled to open in Omaha in June 1969. At the time, Carson explained that he had gone in with the Swansons “because of their impressive family back­ground in the food field.” The Here’s Johnny’s sales brochure for potential franchise purchasers took much the same tack. According to it, the restaurants were being put forward by “a group of experi­enced food innovators under the direction of Gilbert C. Swanson Jr. and Jay Fulbright Swanson. Several of these ex­perienced innovators took part in the launching of the famous Swanson TV Dinner …. ” Gib­by’s business background was “vast” and Jay’s “extensive.” Actually, neither Gibby nor Jay had any appreciable ex­perience in the food or fran­chise businesses.

Although Gilbert claimed that within six months of the opening of the first restaurant, a total of 302 Here’s Johnny’s franchises had been sold in 19 states and Canada, only 13 out­lets ever opened their doors. All of them were plagued with problems, including the mal­functioning of a system of or­dering food from tables by telephone. According to later court bankruptcy documents, none of the franchises made money. The least unsuccessful were those In Omaha and in Gretna, Louisiana.

There was, in short, never any proof of the basic prem­ise: a public need for a sit­down gourmet hamburger. Moreover, the project was launched just in time for an economic tailspin that raised havoc with the franchise in­dustry all over the country.

By early 1970, an “austeri­ty” program had been adopted by the corporate headquarters at 8401 West Dodge, and Car­son had resigned as chairman. To keep the corporation going, more than $2 million more Swanson family money was thrown in, but it proved to be good money after bad. By 1974, Johnny’s American Inn Inc. had undergone several reor­ganizations and finally filed a Chapter XI bankruptcy.

Here’s Johnny’s last act was played out in the Federal Dis­trict Court for Louisiana in 1975 when “Gilbert Swanson Jr., Jay F. Swanson, Johnny’s American Inn et al” were sued by the Family Restaurant Corporation, Here’s Johnny’s Louisiana franchise holder. Family Restaurant alleged 18 violations of the franchise agreement and active misrep­resentation on the part of the Swansons and J .A.I. Inc. The court found the defendants in breach of contract and or­dered payment of the entire $218,000 in damages sought by Family Restaurant, plus court  costs for all concerned.

Back before the Here’s John­ny’s fiasco, Gibby had sold Samardick Enterprises, the security guard company he once headed, but he never lost his pleasant remembrances of his early days as a rent-a-cop. While serving as president of Swanson Enterprises, he regu­larly wore a .38 Special under his coat, and looked for ways to express his proclivities for law enforcement. In 1973, Gibby tried to donate funds for new uniforms for the Omaha Police Department Traffic Division, but public criticism of the offer led to its eventual withdrawal by joint agree­ment between Swanson and then-Mayor (now United States Senator) Edward Zorin­sky.

The Douglas County Sher­iff’s office, however, proved more amenable to Swanson charity. Between 1972 and 1977, Gibby saw to the dona­tion of more than $60,000 to the Sheriff’s Reserve, paying for items ranging from lie-detec­tor equipment to motorcycles to two-way radios. The donations were made through the Gilbert C. Swanson Founda­tion, created in his father’s will for the express purpose of promoting “charitable, reli­gious, educational and research objectives.” Gibby was also known to have given Uni­versity of Nebraska football tickets to his law-enforcement friends and to have enter­tained several officers at a home he owned in Scottsdale, Ariz. Not surprisingly, Gibby was allowed to carry a badge identifying him as a Special Deputy for Douglas County.

In 1974, the year Johnny’s American Inn went into bank­ruptcy, and the year after the uniform controversy, Gilbert Swanson’s Special Deputy status came into unexpected view again. The occasion was a dinner at the Ramada Inn in Bellevue, in Sarpy County, a JO-minute drive from Omaha. According to police reports, Gilbert was dining there with three lawyer friends and sev­eral unidentified female com­panions. The party got into a discussion of blacks in which the words “nigger” and “spearchucker” were used re­peatedly and at high volume. When told by the restaurant’s black manager to desist or leave, Swanson continued to be “abusive” and refused. At that point, the manager called the Bellevue Police Depart­ment.

Soon after four officers ar­rived, Gibby emerged from the dining room doorway hold­ing his Douglas County Special Deputy’s badge in front of him, demanding to talk to the officer in charge. After sev­eral minutes of conversation with a lieutenant, during which Gibby reportedly con­tinued his racist comments, the officer said it would be best if he left.

The police later recounted the following. A crowd gath­ered as Gibby and his friends headed for the parking lot – one of the friends carrying open bottles of wine. The party continued to make abusive comments about blacks and began bad-mouthing the police as well. Then when the lieuten­ant pointed out that removing such open beverages was against the law, the scion of the Swanson family cursed the lieutenant, walked away mumbling obscenities, and was grabbed by two officers, handcuffed and placed in a cruiser. He is said to have then snapped at the officers that they “would pay for this” If they ever came into Omaha County.

No formal charges were ever filed, and the Sarpy County attorney said later that he received calls from several members of the Omaha Bar Association urging him to drop the matter.

Unlike Gilbert Sr. and his brother Clarke, Gibby and Jay had never been a good working team. Now, in the aftermath of the franchising debacle, they drifted further apart. Jay, who moved back to Houston, felt despondent about and person­ally responsible for the losses suffered both by the family and by the franchisees. Ac­cording to a source close to the Swansons, he, again, had to be talked out of trying to cover those losses out of his own sig­nificantly depleted pocket. Gradually, Jay’s depression deepened.

On the afternoon of Oct. 15, 1975, 34-year-old Jay Fulbright Swanson made his way to the attic of his Houston home, lay down on a piece of carpet, carefully folded his coat under his head and ingested a fatal dose of barbiturates. “I’m doing more harm than good being in this world. . . . , ” he wrote in a note left beside his body. He added a few lines about the details of the estate. “I want the best tax handling done” were his last words.

Gibby did not attend Jay’s funeral.

By then, Gibby had tapped more of the family capital and was well on his way into his next scheme. Early in 1974, he paid $9 million for a 95-percent interest in the First National Bank of Sioux City, Iowa. His intention, according to the legal papers filed by his sisters, was to hold the bank for a short time, sell it again at a profit, and recoup all the John­ny’s American Inn losses.

The first step went smoothly enough. Gibby arranged loans of $6.5 million from Continen­tal Illinois Bank and Trust and $2.5 million from the First National Bank of Omaha after obtaining permission from his sisters, Patricia and Carla, to pledge some of the remaining assets in their trust funds to his new venture. They were a bit leery by then, but both were still susceptible to his ar­guments and somewhat afraid to refuse him. In their subse­quent suit, they said that Gibby had promised them that the assets they were pledging were free of any actual risk and that he would personally secure them, but, they said, no such security was ever forthcoming and the whereabouts of a number of holdings be­came the subject of mystery or dispute.

What is known is that Gibby and the Swansons lost money heavily while they owned First National and they owned it for more than two years. When Gibby was finally able to sell the Sioux City bank in 1976, the sale price was more than a half-million dollars less than the Swansons had paid for it in the first place.

According to a source close to the family, Patricia became upset about the venture when she received no progress re­ports, and she began sending letters from her home outside San Diego, California, to Cecil Johnson at the family’s Omaha headquarters. The family tradition that women are incapable of handling busi­ness matters held fast, and she was told, in effect, to be grate­ful for the allowance sent her and not to meddle. She ac­quiesced for the moment, but in 1977, after a second divorce, Patricia Swanson finally hired a lawyer.

The details were still not forthcoming from Cecil John­son or Gibby, but she did dis­cover enough to lead her to file suit on June 1, 1978, in Federal District Court for Nebraska. She asked that Gilbert C. Swanson Jr., Cecil Johnson and Gerald Sawall be removed as trustees of the 1964 Patricia Trust. Her sister, Carla, soon filed a similar motion in refer­ence to her own trust. Both women would allege that their money was being squandered, and that failure to grant their requests would place them in severe financial jeopardy.

In the meantime, the alleged architect of that jeopardy, Gilbert C. Swanson Jr., had an­nounced to the Omaha press that he was giving up his busi­ness career for full-time em­ployment as the Douglas County Sheriff Department’s special deputy and chief poly­graph examiner. “I feel I’m a policeman,” he explained. “When I talk to policemen and they look at me, hopefully, they see me as a policemen.” Gibby added that he wished he had made the switch years be­fore.

His sisters may well have wished the same thing. After their suit was filed, Gibby of­fered to resign from the family trusts, according to a lawyer’s memorandum, if his family would forgive his debts to them, allow him to keep more than $1 million of his assets, pay off all his outside debts and supply him with an addi­tional $250,000.

The offer was refused in short order so Gibby tried an­other maneuver. According to family sources, he sent a mes­sage to the sisters in which he claimed to possess documents that could have a disastrous financial impact on them and that he was prepared to show the documents to the Internal Revenue Service unless an agreement was reached that would stop the court case and guarantee him $50,000 a year for life. Carla and Patricia ig­nored the threat as the case went to court.

Aside from the repetition of charges alleging incompe­tence and double-dealing, the most enlightening information revealed during the Swanson’s days in court last fall con­cerned Gilbert’s current fi­nances. Under oath, he listed $1.52 million in assets and $2.9 million in outstanding liabil­ities, including a $224,000 cumulative tax deficiency. Each month he was going more deeply into the red by close to $19,000. As of Sept. 1, 1978, Gilbert Swanson Jr., the principal heir to one of the largest fortunes of the Middle West, was, according to papers prepared by his ac­countants, insolvent.

Ironically, however, his po­lice career was flourishing. On Dec. 10, the day before court was scheduled to resume for a third time, the Douglas County Sheriff-elect, Richard Roth, revealed that Gibby was one of his “top choices” for the job of chief deputy, number two man in the 97-member department. Speculation about that possi­bility had developed following reports of a lunch Roth had at­tended with high-ranking offi­cers from more than a dozen local law-enforcement juris­dictions at the exclusive Omaha Club. The meal was in honor of visiting United States Secret Service Director H. Stuart Knight, and Roth was the only one of the group to bring an assistant. That assist­ant was Gilbert Swanson Jr. Roth explained that Gibby had been invited because he was the only one who was an actual member of the Omaha Club and could therefore secure a table for lunch. “Swanson has received some bum raps,” Roth told The World-Herald. “Gib is a very intelligent guy. … He’s matured tremendous­ly.”

On Dec. 14, 1978, a settlement of the Swanson family dispute was reported. The terms of the agreement have never officially been made public, but The Omaha-World Herald reported that its key elements were the resignation of Gibby, Cecil Johnson and Gerald Sawall from the sis­ters’ trusts and the dissolution of the joint family holdings. Shortly after the settlement was made, it became clear that the Swansons were cash­ing in their chips. Before the tum of the year, the Swanson Indian Hills Theater, the Swanson Professional Build­ing, some assorted plots of land, the Swanson Towers apartment complex and the family’s Beebe and Runyon wholesale furniture business had all been sold. By New Year’s day, Gilbert Swanson Jr. was hereditary president of an empire upon which the Middle Western sun had fi­nally set.

Five days later, he began a new career. On Jan. 5, 1979, freshly installed Sheriff Rich­ard Roth announced Gibby’s appointment as his chief depu­ty. In an article in The World­ Herald on Jan. 8, Sheriff Roth claimed to have thoroughly in­vestigated his new deputy’s background, including the 1974 incident at the Bellevue, Neb., Ramada Inn. A subsequent check by The Omaha Sun on Roth’s claims revealed that the sheriff had failed to contact six of the eyewitnesses listed in the police reports.

In the same article, Gibby said that some people had misunderstood the issues in the re­cent lawsuit with his sisters. There had never been any alle­gation that he misused assets, he insisted.

Shortly after Gibby’s appoint­ment was made public, an Omaha radio station devoted an hour of talk-show time to phone calls from listeners about Douglas County’s new chief deputy. Without excep­tion, every reaction was nega­tive. While the immigrant Carl and the brothers Gilbert Sr. and Clarke were still remem­bered as “honest,” “decent” and “gifted,” Gibby was viewed as being “pretty dumb,” “sick,” “gun happy.” Said one listener, Gibby could­n’t “run a peanut stand.”

On March 6, 1979, 8401 the Swan­son Building at Dodge Road, monument to the TV Dinner legend and former headquarters of Swanson En­terprises, Johnny’s American Inn and the 1964 Patricia Trust, was sold by the Gilbert C. Swanson Family Partner­ship to a group of Omaha professionals for $1,350,000. Chief Deputy Swanson had no finan­cial interest in the transaction, having relinquished it as part of his settlement with his sis­ters. At the time of sale, the Swansons owed Omaha $134,000 in back taxes on the build­ing.

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