May 22, 2013

Nancy Solomon

Assistant Dean for Students at SLU Medical School Passes Away

James Swierkosz, Ph.D., 1947-2013

ST. LOUIS - James Swierkosz, Ph.D., assistant dean for students at Saint Louis University School of Medicine, passed away unexpectedly in his home on May 21. He was 65.

James Swierkosz, Ph.D.

"Dr. S. was a caring and supportive mentor for medical students, always ready to intervene and help with educational resources or emotional support," said L. James Willmore, M.D., associate dean of admissions at SLU medical school. "He was a kindly, grandfatherly type who was a gifted scientist and devoted to his students."

Swierkosz joined the SLU faculty in 1979 as an assistant professor of microbiology. His research, which was supported by the U.S. Public Health Service, focused on cellular immunology and immunogenetics. He was appointed assistant dean for students in 1988, a position he held until his death.

"He was a father to those students and they loved him so much," said Susan Anslin Kruczyk, who recently retired from SLU after working with Swierkosz for 23 years. "Jim, whose nickname was Jimmy Dean, was like my brother, and was the kindest man I've ever met in my life."

Swierkosz was not above carrying ice to the first year medical school students' orientation picnic or going to St. Louis City Hall to apply for a liquor license so the students could serve adult beverages at their annual benefit auction to raise money for the Health Resource Center, Kruczyk said.

Francis Dailey, co-president of the third year medical school class, remembered when panicked students realized they had 24 hours to come up with a $1,500 reservation fee for their prom. They turned to Swierkosz for help, and he wrote the check.

"Dr. S. was a person who anyone could go to for any problem. His office always had an open door policy. He told us it was a venting machine. People could vent to him and he would take the student's issues to the appropriate source," Dailey said.

"He never had any kids of his own, but really he had lots of kids in his own way. He was like a dad to everyone -- the provider, the protector. We'd give him Father's Day cards on Father's Day. Every year that I've been here, I've done that. It's the natural thing to do," Dailey added.

Swierkosz, who began college as a piano performance major before earning his bachelor's in biology from the State University of New York at Binghamton, performed at the medical school talent show and would play the piano in the student lounge. He loved playing golf, and would beam with pride when he talked about the hole-in-one he hit during the last few years.

"I took up golf because of Jim," said Cliff Bellone, Ph.D., professor emeritus of molecular microbiology and immunology at SLU who was Swierkosz's closest friend and neighbor. "He was probably the kindest, most generous and gentlest man I've been associated with. If you showed up to play golf, he took care of everything, including fees."

Swierkosz was married to Ella Schervish Swierkosz, Ph.D., professor of pediatrics and pathology at SLU, for 41 years. The two met at Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit where he received his doctorate degree in immunology and microbiology.

"They were hand in glove. Anyone who knew them saw them as the ultimate team. If the world were full of marriages like Jim and Ella's, divorce lawyers would have to go out of business," Bellone said.

Michael Green, Ph.D., professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at SLU, remembers Swierkosz's sense of humor.

"Swierkosz is a Polish name. It's not Green, which you could spell with an e on the end or not. With Swierkosz, you didn't know where to begin. So on his door, Jim taped a list of misspellings of his name from envelope labels. On the way past his door, I used to read them to see the latest version. Some of them were hysterical. It tells you a little about how he could laugh at himself."

Green said that Swierkosz, who was course director for microbes and host responses, a popular microbiology course for first year medical students, found the perfect career in student affairs.

"To the envy of a lot of people, with his skills, character, personality and friendliness, he found exactly the right place to be successful, enjoy what he was doing and do it well. That's the trifecta," Green said. "He was a fantastic educator and a great person. If I were a student, I'd say, ‘Thank God this guy is here.' And the guy enjoyed it."

Clint Holaday, co-president of the class of 2013, counted Swierkosz among the most influential people at the medical school.

"He was always very welcoming, unintimidating and could solve any problem. You felt totally taken care of. There was never a problem too great for academic affairs to figure out," Holaday said. "I might have had a special relationship, but everyone felt that they had that special relationship with him."

Philip Alderson, M.D., dean of SLU's School of Medicine, called Swierkosz's passing a great loss for all, particularly his beloved medical and graduate students.

"We will all miss his gentle and wise counsel and friendly ways," Alderson said. "We're thankful that he was so much a part of our lives and our university."

Visitation for Swierkosz will be from 4 to 8 p.m. Thursday, May 23 at Lupton Chapel, 7233 Delmar Blvd. His funeral Mass will be celebrated at 11 a.m. Friday, May 24 at St. Francis Xavier College Church, 3628 Lindell Blvd.

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