The Swandal Legacy

Generational Faith and Fortitude in the Shields Valley


The word “legacy” gets thrown around a lot in the Shields Valley, north of Livingston, Montana, one of the increasingly rare regions of the west where the population is still dominated by multi-genera-tional ranching families. But even in this vast, rugged land of cattlemen and women, legacies are not the exclusive province of ranch families.

One of the Shields Valley's best-known family legacies is the one established by the Swandal family, generations of which continue to live and work on ranch land settled by their immigrant ancestors over 100 years ago, when the Swandal patriarch, Nels 'Svandal,' immigrated to the United States from Svandal, Norway, in 1909. Nels, along with five of his six brothers, started a ranching operation that has endured and thrived for more than 5 generations. However, the determination and independence that compelled the Svandal brothers to migrate to unknown territory and stake their claim in the grueling business of raising sheep and cattle also allowed the family to thrive in the legal profession.

Like the Svandals before her, Bonnie Swandal ventured into foreign land when she sat for the Montana Bar Exam in 1967; not only was she the sole woman to sit for the Exam that year, she was a 38 year old ranch wife who spent her days working alongside her husband and raising five children. What would be considered an unconventional undertaking for a middle aged mother of five who lived 35 miles from town, even today, rightfully marked Bonnie as a maverick among the women of her time and place. She hadn't attended college or law school, neither of which was a prerequisite to sitting for the Bar Exam in Montana at that time. In 1967, candidates for admission to the State Bar in Montana could gain admission if they were able to pass the Bar Exam, regardless of whether they had attended college or law school. However, the odds of doing so for those without the benefit of a higher education were, predictably, dismal. Two thirds of those who sat for the Exam in 1967 failed. Bonnie Swandal passed. And, in doing so, she began a legal legacy that currently includes her son, District Court Judge Wm. Nels Swandal, her granddaughter, Rebecca Swandal and, most recently, Bonnie's grandson's wife, Kimberly Deschene, with whom Bonnie, at the age of 81, recently formed the partnership of Deschene & Swandal, PC, in White Sulphur Springs.

Currently, all applicants to the Montana Bar Association must prove that they have graduated from an accredited college and law school and passed the Montana Bar Exam. Although it's not a formal requirement, the majority of candidates devote six weeks to an intensive Bar Exam preparation course prior to taking the exam. In 1965, Bonnie's brother, Bob Brogan, a lawyer at the time, encouraged her to do as he had done several years before and take a home study course to prepare for the Bar Exam. Bonnie's son, Nels, recalls the Herculean effort Bonnie poured into her preparation for the Exam. She woke at 2:00 a.m. and studied until she woke her children at 6:00 a.m., after which she fed them breakfast, got them off to school and commenced working alongside her husband, Austin, on the ranch. After the children came home from school it was time to make dinner, help with homework, do the laundry, clean the house, bathe the children, put them to bed, and prepare to repeat the schedule again. And again. And again. For six grueling months.

True to form, Bonnie had no intention of slowing down when she was compelled to stop practicing in Park County in 1994, when Nels was elected to be the local District Court Judge. So, at the age of 65, she enrolled at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas and earned Bachelor Degrees in Psychology and Human Services, in 1999 and 2003, respectively.
Graduates of University of Montana Law School weren't required to take the Bar Exam as a prerequisite to obtaining their license to practice law when Nels graduated from the University of Montana School of Law in 1978, so he went straight from school to work. Like his mother, he did his fair share of work on the ranch when he was home from school, including the summer after he graduated from law school, even though he was working as a lawyer at Bonnie's law firm, as well. By that time, his mother's practice had already become a family affair that, in addition to his mother, also included his aunt, June Swandal Miller, who served as the firm's office manager. “Aunt Junie”, now 81 years old, still manages the firm with the unflinching professionalism that prompted Bonnie to hire her as the office manager 43 years ago.

The third generation of the Swandal legal legacy was marked on September 25, 2009, when Bonnie appeared with special permission of the Montana Supreme Court in the courtroom over which her son, the Honorable Wm. Nels Swandal, has presided since 1994, and moved the court for the admission of her granddaughter, Rebecca Swandal, to the practice of law in the state of Montana.

Neither Nels nor Bonnie claims any credit for persuading Rebecca to pursue a career in law. In fact, both snicker at the notion of persuading Rebecca, as fiercely independent as her Svandal ancestors, to do anything to which she wasn't already inclined. In fact, her father admits aggressively persuading her to pursue a career in medicine, and not just because she was academically gifted in science and biology. His motivation: “I just wanted her to be able to take care of me when I got old.” But a childhood spent with free reign over her grandmother's law office and cruising the halls of the County-City building where her father served as Park County Attorney for 12 years, along with her precocious brothers, Nels II (“Little Nels”) and Austin, must have made an impression. In third grade Rebecca wrote, “I'm going to be a lawyer” in her journal.

Understandably, there wasn't much whining to Bonnie about the rigors of law school by either Nels or Rebecca. Rebecca will admit to just a little whining while she was studying for the Bar Exam, but she's quick to point out that she was always mindful of her grandmother's exponentially more difficult introduction to the legal profession, “But that's her,” Rebecca says, laughing, “I don't try to compete with that standard.” All indications are that there's no need for competition. Like the unshrinking Swandals before her, Rebecca has managed to build on the foundation laid by her predecessors and forge her own path. She graduated as the Valedictorian of her class at Shields Valley High School in 2002, with high honors from University of Montana in 2005, and with honors from the University of Montana Law School in 2009, after which she served as a Law Clerk for Montana Supreme Court Justice John Warner.

After Judge Warner retired, Rebecca worked as an associate attorney for the Crowley Firm's Bozeman office for a year, until the lure of practicing law in the firm begun by her grandmother four decades earlier enticed her to return to      Livingston, where she has recently joined the law firm of Swandal, Douglass and Gilbert, P.C.

In the midst of all its success, the Swandal legacy has not been exempt from tragedy. Aside from the sentimental component inherent in Rebecca's intimate three-generational swearing-in ceremony, there was another compelling reason that prompted the Swandals to hold their own ceremony, in lieu of attending the en masse swearing-in held by the State Bar Association. The State Bar swearing-in ceremony was scheduled to be held on the anniversary of the untimely death of Bonnie's grandson, Nels' son and Rebecca's older brother, Little Nels, who had died four years earlier as a result of complications of diabetes, at the age of 25. Irony and tragedy were amplified to what, for most, would be an unbearable degree when Little Nels' and Rebecca's younger brother, Austin, died at the age of 24, one week after Rebecca was admitted to the practice of law. Austin's funeral was held four years to the day after the death of his older brother.

But legacies are born of faith and fortitude, both of which the Swandals maintain with dogged determination. Like their predecessors, the Swandals have persevered in the face of tragedy, carrying with them a disproportion-ate share of wisdom gleaned from life's most difficult experiences. While this breed of wisdom is no less vital to lawyers, even more so than a familiarity with statutes, case law and codebooks, perhaps the most important component of the Swandals' success in the legal profession is an obvious respect and affinity for an all too often defiled vocation—after all, it isn't too many careers that are alluring enough to entice a great-grandmother back to work after 16 years of “retirement.”
Obviously, Bonnie's not one for leisure or convention, but, of all the avenues she could have chosen to pursue at this point in her life, she chose to return to the profession she loves. Although, as she points out in her characteristically wry manner, it's not exactly like she's starting all over: “It's not like the days when I was commuting 35 miles south from the ranch to my office; now I'm commuting 35 miles north.” 

Note: Judge Nels Swandal was a candidate for Montana's Supreme Court in 2010.     

Kendra Anderson lives in the Shields Valley and practices law in Livingston.








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