The Vanderbilt Kennedy Center and the Susan Gray School for Children lost a wonderful friend with the passing of Mary Jane Swaney on May 13, 2016.
Through her support of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center’s art program, Mary Jane shared her passion for art with people with disabilities of all ages. She had a special appreciation for the saying, “To give is to receive.”
Mary Jane’s late husband Robb, an architect and committed philanthropist, was instrumental in the design and construction of an accessible toddler playground for the Susan Gray School. Inspired in the wake of tragedy of a close friend, he took to his life’s passion to make a difference in the lives of young children with and without disabilities.
Dedicating his time, energy, and resources, Robb oversaw every aspect of this special project, even as he was coping with his own illness. Although he passed away before the playground’s dedication, he was able to see children at play there during the final weeks of his life, the greatest thanks he could receive, he said.
A talented artist, Mary Jane recognized the importance of using her passion in her efforts to give back. Over the years, she gave thousands of dollars to support art workshops at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, nurturing budding artists with developmental disabilities. Her support opened doors for our workshop participants and allowed her to share her own personal passion and talent for art.
“The reason I continue to give is because I have experienced these workshops, and it is such a joy to see the participants respond and just blossom,” Mary Jane said. “It is a beautiful, beautiful thing to see.”
In addition to these generous gifts, Mary Jane established a charitable gift annuity to benefit the growing arts program at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center.
Mary Jane was born in New London, Connecticut, on October 22, 1931. A few days prior to the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, at the age of 9, Mary Jane, accompanied by her mother and siblings, arrived in Honolulu, where her father, a naval officer, was stationed. She had vivid memories of the bombing, often recalling the sounds of the bombs and the announcements on the PA system for all naval personnel to return to base.
Mary Jane attended high school at Washington Lee High School in Northern Virginia. She met her husband Robb at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, and they married on June 16, 1951. Later, they moved to Tennessee, where they lived for more than 30 years. She attended Peabody College in Nashville, where she studied Geography. In 1980, she published the very first Atlas of Tennessee and The Tennessee Atlas Update. After Robb’s death, in 2007 Mary Jane moved to Greenspring Village in Springfield, Virginia.
“To say [Mary Jane] was a friend is an understatement,” said Amy Harris, who was coordinator of the Susan Gray School during the playground renovation led by the Swaneys. The time marked the beginning of an abiding friendship.
“She was the family we chose for ourselves, ‘grandmother’ to my girls for the years she was in Nashville–a piece of my heart, always and forever,” Harris said. “I will miss her stories, her passion for art and all her beautiful artistic creations, her zest for life and learning, her sharp mind, and her witty humor.”
Mary Jane was preceded in death by her husband of 51 years, Charles Robb Swaney, and brother Hugh Jack Martin, Jr. She is survived by her sister Sally Anne Lion; nieces and nephews, Kate Martin, Zeke Martin, William Martin, Hugh Martin, Daisy Martin, Molly Martin, Carol Feike, Laura Ulmer, and Richard Lion.
Jan Rosemergy is VKC deputy director and director of Communications and Dissemination.
Pictured top of page: Mary Jane Swaney (center) with Next Steps at Vanderbilt graduates Andrew Van Cleave and Elizabeth Story. Photo by Tony Maupin.