Jan Swarr talks very quickly. It’s unclear if this is a natural state, a nervous habit, or just a function of the fact that she is really, extraordinarily busy. At 72, the Church Street resident keeps up a schedule that would hospitalize people decades her junior—if any of them would hazard such an impossible juggling act.
Swarr—to tick off a few entries in the voluminous document “Things Jan Swarr Does”—performs at the (she’ll play a secretary in Li’l Abner in the fall), is a Kiwanis Club member, sits on the Christian Heritage Committee of the YMCA, is an active member of Charlestown United Methodist Church (“Probably the only out-of-Phoenixville activity I have,” she jokes) and the Phoenixville Town Watch, organizes the , served as the Grand Marshall of the , holds leadership positions in drug, alcohol, and nicotine cessation programs, plays bluegrass guitar, and stays in shape by belly dancing.
“I go to bed every night with a smile on my face because I have all these cool things to do the next day,” Swarr said last week, cat by her side.
The Midwestern transplant has her hands in so much in this community, that when she sits in the kitchen of her charmingly cluttered home—imagine a gift shop someone moved into—and is asked to catalogue all her involvements and memberships, she’ll reach for an envelope to start writing out a list before throwing her hands in the air and moving on to other topics.
Another topic: she used to work in strip clubs.
“I worked in strip joints,” Swarr boasted, explaining that after winning Miss Minneapolis and finishing as the first runner-up to Miss Minnesota in the 60s (another topic: Swarr was the runner up to Miss Minnesota), she set out to make it as a singer and ended up performing (clothed, she emphasizes) at gentlemen’s clubs. She was initially (and understandably) not enthusiastic about this arrangement, but a conversation with a union rep changed her mind.
“I—former miss Minneapolis, runner up to Miss Minnesota—go storming into the union and say ‘What have you done? I’m booked in a strip joint!’ And he pointed his finger at me and he said, and I’ll never forget this, ‘A lady is a lady wherever she goes. You raise them to your level, don’t go down to theirs,’” she recalled.
“And so I became extremely popular on the strip circuit.”
Between then and now, the St. Olaf College graduate married, divorced, raised a son, became a grandmother, moved to Phoenixville—where she’s lived for the last 43 years, 16 in her Church Street home—and fell in love with the borough.
Despite the twists and turns, though, when Swarr tells her own story, the narrative is a much simpler one: she wasn’t sober, she became sober, and it changed her life.
Swarr hasn’t had a drink for 31 years, a cigarette for 26, and now she’s committed, through various 12-step programs, to helping others do the same. Up to four nights a week, she attends meetings to help others—and herself.
“Nobody does it until your half at death’s door,” she said of the decision to quit. “You know, if you’re smart enough, you know when [you’re done].”
Swarr, who herself used as a coping mechanism (“Most people just thought I was a ‘party girl,’” she admits) says she had her last drink on a September 6.
“If you can’t remember your last drink,” she added, “you haven’t had it.”
But despite the large role these programs play in her life, Jan Swarr's defined much more by what she does than what she doesn't do any longer. For instance: how many 72-year-olds are avid bluegrass guitarists?
“Oh, I go to bluegrass conventions. I jam with bluegrass bands,” she said, showing off a pair of her guitars, before meting out some country advice.
“Always jam with people better than you. Sit on the edge of the circle, but get in there.”
Even if you’re sure you’re in over your head, she said, just jump in. The point isn't to be perfect, but to help out where you can.