Dick Swanson's secret powers 

The ordinary life of an extraordinary man

Page 3 of 3

Dick might obsess about rules because they seem arbitrary. He was getting ready to run in a Special Olympics race once and turned around at the starting line to face the other way. When he was asked to face in the same direction as the other runners, he pointed out that it would be an equal distance in either direction.

People who enforce rules fascinate him. Every Halloween he dresses up as a policeman, and he talks to city police whenever he gets the chance. He tells me that he once dreamt that he was back in Helena, trying to talk to a cop who said, "Not now. I'm busy with another man." He thought the cop was angry at him and awoke relieved that he was in his bedroom in Missoula.

As for goals, he doesn't aspire to astound the world with his voice or his memory. Someday, he says, he wants to walk to the Kiwanis annual pancake breakfast by himself.


Jen Hoyle, one of the ORI staffers who works with Dick, was sitting on his porch with him on a recent afternoon. "What do you think people should know about you?" she asked.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

"If I am tall, would I be able to touch the ceiling?" he said.

"Can you?" she asked.

He stood and touched the ceiling of his porch. "I guess I can," he said.

"What are your hopes and dreams?" she asked.

"Hopes and dreams?" he repeated.

"What's one of your goals?"

"To go to New York City. Be living on Eastern Daylight Time."

"What would you do there?"

"Ride the subway. Visit the NYPD."

"Did you ever talk to your parents about being different?"


"What did they say?"

"That I tap things."

"How did you feel about being different from other kids?"

"I was jealous of them."

"How do you want people to treat you?"

"With respect."

"Do you feel like people treat you with respect now?"


"What do you want people to know about autism?"

He paused. "About autism?"

"Is that a hard question?"



Every weekend Dick hunts shadows.

In the late 1990s, I went with him one day to look at a shadow on the side of the Bee Hive, an assisted-living home on Reserve Street. I ask now if he remembers it. Yes, he says, and describes the building and the way the shadow fell on it. I have no idea if he's right because I certainly can't remember the shape of one shadow I saw more than a decade ago.

Sometimes he photographs the shadows. He has a few favorites these days: near Ole's on Russell Street at 6:25 p.m. That shadow is a straight line that parallels the green vinyl siding.

click to enlarge Swanson shot this self-portrait. - PHOTO COURTESY OF DICK SWANSON
  • Photo courtesy of Dick Swanson
  • Swanson shot this self-portrait.

There's another one he likes at the ORI woodshop. We must leave his house at precisely 1:15 p.m. to drive there in time to see it jutting from a wall onto a concrete ramp. We're late one day, though, and he gets irritated, bellowing "Turn green, red light!' at the intersection of Mount and Russell. When we arrive, he peers at the diminishing shadow.

Dick keeps close track of time, as though he's trying to hold onto it. He stares at his wristwatch waiting for it to hit 1:32 p.m., when the sun will be directly overhead. When 1:32 has come and gone, he keeps looking at his watch. He's waiting now for 1:55.

"What happens at 1:55?" I ask.

"At 1:55 I say, 'It's just about 3 in Chicago,'" he says. "'Just about 3 in New Orleans.'"

On a recent May day, he greeted his neighbors, a man and his son. He wanted to wish the man's wife a happy Mother's Day a day early, but she wasn't there.

The next day I went with him to the Missoula Cemetery, where his mom is buried. He visits Betty's grave every year on Mother's Day. He approached it alone, as he preferred, and stood there with his fingers pressed against her nameplate. He turned to walk away but then he turned back and touched her name, and did that again and again.

Dick Swanson performs with a choir for the VSA Montana Cabaret and silent auction at the MCT Center for Performing Arts Thursday, May 19, at 7 PM. Doors open at 6 PM. Free with a donation of toiletries or food for the Food Bank.

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