Sometimes when I interview someone, I have a list of questions. I go down the list, then I leave.
More often, however, the interview turns into a conversation. I ask some questions, I answer some questions. Those usually turn out to be the best interviews, when there’s some give and take, and people feel more comfortable being vulnerable.
That’s what happened one of the first times I talked with Marilee Swirczek. I was in her office, doing a story about the memoirs class she was teaching at Western Nevada College.
We talked about the importance of preserving our own histories through story, how writing them down can be healing and cathartic — that giving them words makes them real.
As we spoke, we traveled together that road that leads to memories, tucked away, not ready to be touched.
Before I knew it, I was crying. Not the kind of cry you can quickly hide from the person you’re talking to (at least I convince myself I blink away the tears before anyone notices), but the kind of cry that demands to be seen, heard and felt.
Normally, that would make the person on the other side uncomfortable. Not Marilee. She took it right in stride. Didn’t even flinch. Even though I wanted to eat my own face in shame.
A couple of years later, my friend F.T. Norton, hardened crime reporter, interviewed Marilee about the “Always Lost: A Meditation on War” exhibit.
The exhibition began as a creative writing class at the college in 2009, as a way to personalize the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Swirczek and fellow professor Don Carlson transformed the photography and writings into an exhibit that has since been displayed at more than 50 venues across the nation.
F.T., an Army veteran, got off the phone from that interview in tears.
She was probably even more embarrassed than I was at the spontaneous eruption of emotion. And, like me, she couldn’t really explain why or how it happened.
It was just the Marilee effect. In a world that’s often lacking kindness and empathy, Marilee could effortlessly tap into your humanity.
She died Sunday, and the community has already felt her loss.
At what was to be the final reception for the Always Lost exhibit, a memorial tribute will now be held for its founder at 5 p.m. Thursday at the WNC Art Gallery.
“Marilee touched so many of us in so many ways,” said Major USMC (Ret.) Kevin Burns. “We invite both the WNC and Carson City community to come and share anecdotes of how this most remarkable human being touched each of our lives.”
My thoughts and prayers are with Ron, their children and grandchildren.
My tribute to Marilee will be to try to emulate her strength through compassion and her willingness to listen and to truly understand.
Teri Vance is a journalist, freelance writer and native Nevadan. Contact her with column ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.