Supporting one of their own
Photo: Allen Swan said he’s grateful that though his cancer has ravaged his body, it hasn’t touched his mind. “I am quite fortunate in that my mind has stayed pretty good,” he said. “There might be 58 steps you gotta go through (to repair a vehicle), and I can still go over and do all 58 on the car.” Photo by Cheryl Borrowdale
Lions Club, community come together for longtime Elburn resident
ELBURN—Allen and Lynette Swan have a file folder in which to stash incoming medical bills, since they can no longer pay them.
Lynette estimates they have $20,000 in unpaid medical bills, and more arrive every day.
“It’s very expensive to be sick,” she said. “You don’t realize it.”
Allen, who owns Valley West Automotive in Elburn, was diagnosed with stage four cancer of the lungs, liver and pancreas in January. It’s been five months since his doctor gave him an estimated six months to live, and he wants just two things: to see his oldest grandson graduate from high school in a month, and to leave his wife something.
“He’s never really complained,” Lynette said. “It is what it is, and you do what you do. We’ve just gotten to the point where we put (the bills) in a folder, and we just worry about the essential bills.”
That file folder is why the Elburn Lions Club will host a fundraiser for Allen on May 18. The benefit will be held at Elburn Lions Park, 500 Filmore St., from noon to 5 p.m., and will feature a pork roast luncheon, draft beer, a silent auction and a live auction. The duo Drift Away will perform live music, including a variety of popular rock, oldies and country songs.
Auction items include a 40-inch television donated by Country Automotive, a three-piece wrought iron patio set donated by Valley West Sandblasting, Blackhawks tickets for next season, gift certificates to Ream’s Meat Market, and many more.
Ken Gilkey, who has known Allen all his life, is co-chairing the event. He decided to approach the Lions Club about hosting a benefit when he heard from his father, Lee, that the Swans were having trouble paying their bills.
Tickets are $25 each, and while the Lions Club will sell a limited number of tickets at the door, the group is asking the public to buy tickets by Wednesday, May 14.
“We hope that people will buy their tickets by (May) 14 so that we have an idea of how much meat to cook,” said Kevin Poust, owner of Valley West Sandblasting and one of the event’s organizers. “There will be some fudge room for people who walk in, but we wouldn’t be able to accommodate 100 extra people.”
Tickets are for sale at Dave’s Barbershop, 132 N. Main St., Elburn; Old Second Bank, 749 N. Main St., Elburn; Hill’s Country Store, better known as the “Purple Store,” at 2S133 Harter Road, Kaneville; or by calling Cindy at Elburn Lions Park at (630) 365-6315.
Gilkey urged residents to come out and support the family.
“It’s a time to come together to support Allen financially, but more importantly, it’s a chance to pay your respects to him while he’s still here,” Gilkey said. “He’s been a fixture in the community for many years.”
Allen lived in Kaneville as a boy, then moved to Elburn with his parents in 1951, when he was in fifth grade. He’s lived in Elburn ever since—he was part of Kaneland High School’s first graduating class in 1959—and has been a Lions Club member for over 40 years.
His parents owned Swan Ford, a car dealership that served Elburn for nearly 40 years, and after it closed, Allen decided to open up his own automotive business.
Working on cars was all he ever wanted to do, he said, so much so that he was frequently sent to the principal’s office as a high school student for reading car magazines in class. That principal, Dr. John Johansen, made Allen promise to become the absolute best mechanic that Elburn had.
When Valley West Automotive opened in 1966, Johansen brought his car in for work and congratulated him.
“He came in for me to fix his car, and he said, ‘You’ve fulfilled your promise. You did what I asked.’ He was a good man,” Allen remembered. “I never forgot. That was an educator who pushed me to be the best I could be, but didn’t push me to get my Cs up to Bs. He said, ‘You know what you want to do.’”
After a lifetime of working on cars, Allen said he still loves his work.
“I’ve never woken up in the morning and said, ‘I don’t want to work,’” he said.
Though the cancer has spread into his bones and leaves him so exhausted he can hardly walk by the afternoon, Allen’s still coming into work at Valley West every morning to work on customer’s cars.
“What else am I going to do?” he laughed. “I’m going to give it a good fight. I’m doing what I can with what I’ve got.”
It’s just part of who Allen is, Gilkey said.
“Even now, knowing that he’s not going to be around, he’s got a pretty positive attitude. He’s not the type to just sit back and feel sorry for himself,” Gilkey said. “To still keep a good outlook, that’s pretty impressive.”
Allen says he’s not afraid to die—he is a devout Christian who attends Grace Fellowship Church in Troxel, and he says he knows where he’s going—but he does mind the side effects of the chemotherapy.
His medical team put him on the strongest chemotherapy drugs available, which gave him a heart attack and landed him in intensive care. The drugs have also caused him to lose his sense of taste.
“I can’t taste a pickle,” he said. “You eat to keep moving, but you don’t get to enjoy a meatloaf and mashed potatoes. It’s a bummer, it really is a bummer.”
Perhaps the hardest thing is the idea that he can’t do the things he used to.
“Pride is another hard thing to swallow. They say you got to have your walker with you all the time. I just can’t accept that. But I have to. I’m pretty good, I fumble around a little in the morning, but the afternoons, I better sit down and look out the window, because my legs won’t push me any further,” Allen said.
He’s experienced hard times before. His first wife, Dorothy, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and died from complications from the disease. A flood in 1998 left his business under 3 feet of water, causing significant damage both to the business and to the nine customer cars he had in the shop at the time. The housing market crash in 2008 hurt his business, since many of his clients were in the construction trade, and so the last several years have been lean ones.
“Half my business is supported by construction, and when the housing market went south, my big accounts went south, too,” he said. “The plumbers, the builders, they didn’t need me to fix their trucks because they weren’t using their trucks.”
And Lynette has had her own health difficulties, including a heart attack and diabetes. She always thought she’d be the first to go, she said.
Yet despite everything, Allen says he’s had a good life.
“I’ve been really fortunate,” he said. “I’ve had what I consider a good life. I have no questions that I’ve had a wonderful life, but I did not expect this to happen this quick.”
The support of friends and family has meant everything to them, Lynette said. Every day, she gets three or four phone calls from people asking how Allen is, and visitors have been dropping by the shop to see him every morning.
Some are people he’d expect—his 93-year-old mother, his brother, his old friends—and some aren’t. The outpouring of support from his customers has been especially surprising and heartening, he said.
“The support I’ve gotten, from friends I’ve had a long time and from my customers, it’s amazing,” he said. “You know, you think you know people on only a customer basis, but when they’ve been customers for 30, 40 years, you form relationships. The support has been wonderful. You could not ask for better.”
Lynette said that Elburn has been good to them.
“When he got the cancer, I’m telling you, that’s when you find out how much people love you,” she said. “We love Elburn. There is not a day that goes by that people, local people, don’t stop to see him. (Village President) Dave Anderson stops two, three times a week. We had one friend who came and shoveled our driveway all winter so we could get out and go to chemo. Boy, when you need people, and they’re there, it’s wonderful.”
People are there, Allen’s friends say, because he’s always been there for them. Gilkey said that Allen’s been like a second father to him.
“I’ve known him my whole life,” he said. “I always thought of him as a great family man. He takes care of his family, and you don’t see that all the time in today’s world. He has integrity. He’s been in business forever, and to do that, you have to keep clients forever.”
Larry Erickson, who has been friends with Allen since they played football together in high school, agreed.
“He’s a good guy,” Erickson said. “He’s a good businessman, he’s a good guy, he’s never sarcastic or nothing, and his dad was the same way.”
Erickson described Allen as a “good traveling buddy” whom he traveled with around the country, checking out stock car races and the Daytona 500, as well as a prankster who once hotwired his car for a joke.
The friends were in Milwaukee for stock car racing, and Erickson had brought his Ford Bronco.
“He came over and said it was running and was going to be out of gas,” Erickson recalled. “I was like, ‘I have the key in my hand.’ But he showed it to me, and it was running. Turns out he hotwired it for a laugh.”
But while Allen knows how to have fun, Erickson said, he has always been a family man at heart.
“(Allen’s) daughter, she’s at the top of the list,” Erickson said.
Allen has two children, Mark Swan, a salesman who lives in Chicago, and Stacey (Swan) Roach, who now lives in DeKalb, Ill., and has four sons of her own.
Those four grandsons are “the biggest part of our hearts,” Lynette said.
Alex, the oldest grandson, will graduate from DeKalb High School on June 8, and Allen has promised that he’ll be there.
“I made him a promise a couple of months ago, and I want to keep it,” he said. “My daughter said, ‘Dad, you’ve gotta keep kicking and see him graduate.’ So that’s my goal, to defy the odds and see him graduate.”
Poust urged residents to come out and support the fundraising efforts.
“Allen Swan is a past Lions Club president and a lifetime member of our club,” Poust said. “The money is to help them pay his medical expenses, and the more the merrier. I mean, he’s been a businessman in the community for his whole life, and it would be nice to see the community support him in his time of need.”