Melba Ruth Graffius Swoyer, née Tenney, aged 77, died Tuesday morning, June 14, 2022 at Evanston Hospital. Her husband, son and two stepdaughters were by her side.
Melba was born on June 3, 1945 in Little Rock, AR. Those who knew her best knew the many rich stories of her life – losing her own mother at age 1, her early years in an orphanage, attending Little Rock Central High School, nightly surveillance with her sister Shirley (then detective), her many travel experiences around the world (where she always carried her own pillow) and how she earned an MBA (Lake Forest College) without a bachelor’s degree.
From her early job as a secretary at Sperry Rand (her Gregg shorthand skills fascinated her young stepdaughters) to her senior positions in marketing and communications at Allstate, United Airlines (technology division) and Montgomery Ward, Melba has been in contact with hundreds of people throughout her career Career.
A strong woman in a man’s business world, she could infuriate some who felt threatened by her inimitable style, but more than that, she was respected and admired by her bosses, peers and those who worked for her. Later in her career, Melba joined her husband in his communications consulting practice, Cobey Communications.
She was a consultant with the John Howard Association, which independently monitors correctional facilities, policies and practices.
She was also Director of Development and Communications and Interim General Manager at Housing Options for the Mentally Ill, Evanston; and CEO of Rogers Park PACTT Learning Center, which provides educational, residential, and vocational programs to support children and adults with autism.
Melba’s undying compassion for others was undoubtedly influenced by her own personal adversities in her early life. As an ally, advocate, mentor, Melba devoted endless hours to helping those closest to her and strangers in need. Her time as a hospice volunteer in her retirement embodied this well.
Equally important was Melba’s passion and love for her animal friends – especially cats. During their nearly 40-year marriage, Melba and her husband have housed and cared for numerous cats — too many to list here — each with their own distinctive personality, just like her.
Melba lived her life unabashedly — her hands on the wheel, one foot on the gas and the other on the clutch with the wind in her hair — breaking rules that were made to be broken. A highly independent woman of her generation, Melba was always up for adventure and loved spontaneity.
Sometimes the adventure looked like a last-minute flight on standby on a Friday night, or other times it meant driving down Lake Shore Drive to ride the Ferris wheel after bedtime.
She was a great cook, known for her spaghetti and meatballs and chicken enchiladas, and she relished the days when a weekend meant a full house with dear friends and stimulating conversation, or celebratory holiday parties with song, games, magic, and libations.
A thoughtful gift giver, Melba loved saving and looked forward to finding the perfect find at a local Sunday flea market after reading The New York Times cover to cover (she loved reading the obituaries and catching up on people’s lives to inform).
Melba enjoyed listening to music (and singing along), taking trips with her husband Ken, and exploring new things with her grandchildren (whom they named Mimi), all while keeping her personal interests focused.
Melba enjoyed following her children’s careers and celebrating her growing grandchildren; loved a good old-fashioned phone call and approached life with an infectious “why not?” attitude that had many of her friends and family wondering just that: why not?!
At the end of the day, rain or shine, hot or cold, Melba looked forward to settling down for the night in front of a roaring fire with her husband by her side, a gin and tonic (Tanqueray) in hand and a cat on top her lap.
Melba was preceded in death by her parents, Josephine and Martin, a brother Charles and a sister Shirley. She is survived by her brother Martin (Myra); her husband, Ken Swoyer; her son Kenneth Casey Swoyer; two stepdaughters, Jessica Swoyer Green (Dominic) and Cobey Swoyer Struckmeyer (Erich); as well as her grandchildren Elliot, Henry, Bennett, Oliver and Spencer.
A celebration of her life will take place at a later date.
In lieu of flowers, the family is soliciting donations on their behalf to the Evanston Animal Shelter (847.866.5082, 2310 Oakton St., Evanston, IL 60202); Residential Hospice of Skokie (4901 Searle Parkway, Suite 160, Skokie, IL 60077; and/or New Mexico Holocaust Museum (PO Box 1762, Albuquerque, NM 87103).
Finally, in her final days, Melba’s beloved son Casey sang to her gently and lovingly all the songs she used to sing to him at bedtime when he was young.
By her side, day after day, until her last breath. Proof for her, no doubt. We keep singing her song. And we miss her so much.