Snapshots from Chuck Swanson's entertaining life
Tuesday, February 27, 2024
Chuck Swanson collage with Hancher Auditorium in the background
Collage by Melissa Weber | Williams McBride Group.

In a small town in Iowa in the 1960s, 11 African elephants drew crowds to a supermarket. Decades later, a woman in a spectacular white gown swooped down from the ceiling of Hancher Auditorium and poured a guest a glass of champagne. 

What do these bizarre, but charming occurrences have in common? Intrigue, sure. Wonder, of course. But above all, a Swanson behind the scenes.

Like his dad told him long ago, Chuck Swanson (BBA75/MBA76) is a “people person.” He’s instantly likeable, and a fast friend. He’s also an entertainer. A host extraordinaire.

So much so that the University of Iowa recognized him with the 2023 Distinguished Forevermore Staff Award for spending 37 years managing and directing Hancher, bringing awe and joy, laughter, and shared experiences to Iowa City and beyond.

His imagination and flair for showmanship started early.

Growing up, the family business was Swanson’s Superstore in Spencer, Iowa. It was a grocery store open seven days a
week and was wildly successful, thanks to his creative father, Oscar.

According to Swanson, attention-grabbing events at the store included bringing elephants to the parking lot (“Who knows where he got them!”) and hosting a contest for a new invention at the time—hula hoops, which his dad had shipped all the way from California.

“He had a very successful business because he was such a great marketer,” Swanson remembers. “He was always creating and thinking outside the box. I learned a lot from him.”

Chuck Swanson and his dad Oscar Swanson
Oscar and Chuck Swanson.

Along with instilling his unique business sense, Swanson’s dad also proudly sent Chuck and his three siblings to the University of Iowa, even though he never attended college himself. Chuck got his bachelor’s degree in marketing and business administration in 1975 and his MBA with a concentration in finance in 1976.

“If it wasn’t for my degrees from the College of Business, I wouldn’t have had the career I did,” Swanson said. “It opened doors for me.” Specifically, the doors of Hancher.

Swanson first stepped foot into Hancher its opening year, 1972, while he was an undergraduate student. He saw the first show at the original Hancher building, a staging of The Music Man, with the Iowa playwright Meredith Willson in attendance. He was wowed, and thought “My God, this is a pretty cool place,” but had no idea the impact the institution would have on his life.

Old Hancher
The original Hancher Auditorium. 

After graduation, he worked as a state bank examiner and as an officer at a bank in Rock Rapids, Iowa. Then one chance day, he went to the gas station and bought a newspaper, where he saw a small classified ad seeking a business manager for Hancher Auditorium and applied.

“As soon as my wife heard I got an interview, she started packing,” Swanson said. She knew he’d win them over at the interview.

At the helm, he moved up the ranks from business manager to executive director in 2002. All the while making connections and building relationships with artists and community members. Audiences benefited through performances and residencies with top-tier artists brought to Iowa City from around the world.

Chuck Swanson with Joffrey Ballet dancers
Swanson with Joffrey Ballet dancers.

“Relationships are what matter most,” Swanson said. “It’s everything. It can change the world.”

Some of the people he has created meaningful relationships with over the years include the Joffrey Ballet and the architects and builders of the new Hancher.

Swanson was driving through torrential rain to reach Hancher with the Rubberband dance company when the 2008 flood was just beginning. He was desperately trying to get to the venue, then tried to move the event to Carver-Hawkeye Arena, but eventually had to just take the dancers to their hotel. He couldn’t believe that the show wouldn’t go on.

“Everybody was crying. It was so devastating,” he recalled.

Hancher flooding
Hancher during the flood of 2008. 

He was equally disbelieving when someone first said that they would need a new building and not have a home venue for nearly a decade. (“I thought they were crazy!”) He figured it would probably just be a restoration, but the water kept coming and the floors buckled along with any hope of saving it.

“I’ll never forget looking at the site from a distance with the floodwater rising and just feeling … helpless,” he said.

But within the tragedy came a silver lining. Something so contradictory and wonderful, that it almost felt magical, like something you’d see on Hancher’s stage. With help from FEMA funds, Swanson, the university, and the community got to rebuild and have one of the most cutting-edge performance centers in the United States.

Chuck with Cesar Pelli and Fred Clarke on opening night.
Swanson with architect Cesar Pelli on opening night. 

The elegant new Hancher sits on higher ground a few hundred feet from its previous iteration and was designed by the world-renowned Pelli Clarke Pelli architects, led by the now late César Pelli.

The building echoes the bends of the river it overlooks, existing alongside it and treating it with reverence. “We used to have our back turned to the river,” he said.

Swanson’s role in the rebuild was to communicate the community’s vision to Pelli and the local partnering firm, OPN Architects, whose team included Dan Thies and Tippie alum Justin Bishop (MBA15).

It was a meeting of the minds. Pelli Clarke Pelli won him over at the interview (sound familiar?), and it became one of the most rewarding partnerships of his life. Swanson remains friends with the extended team of architects to this day.

Chuck Swanson with his family at the distinguished alumni awards ceremony.
Swanson with family at the Distinguished Alumni Awards ceremony. 

Because connectors never stop making connections, Swanson was also a catalyst for all sorts of cross-campus collaborations throughout his career, including with his alma mater, the Tippie College of Business.

Hancher once brought the Orchestra of St. Luke’s from New York City to Hancher and the Pappajohn Business Building. “It’s an orchestra with a really different management style,” Swanson explained. “They performed and had a lunch and a discussion with students about their non-hierarchical style and what decision making looks like in that kind of organization.”

Another time, the Hubbard Street Dance Company was in town for a performance and Hubbard Street 2’s director, Taryn Kaschock Russell, came to speak to David Hensley’s entrepreneurial classes to present on creative thinking and what it’s like to serve on the board of a nonprofit.

Hancher Auditorium
The new Hancher Auditorium.

And Swanson asked Associate Professor of Practice Nancy Abram and her students to help with the showcase marketing for Hancher’s grand reopening in 2016.

“I loved thinking of different ways to connect the arts with students,” Swanson said.

Since his retirement in 2022, Swanson is staying active with his five grandchildren, visiting favorite places like Santa Fe with his wife, Kim, and serving on multiple boards across the state.

Of course, he also throws fantastic dinner parties. (“I’d rather host than be hosted.”) Though there may no longer be champagne descending from the ceiling, one thing is for sure—he knows how to make it memorable.


This article appeared in the Spring 2024 issue of Tippie Magazine.