In Memory of Volunteer Extraordinaire Tom Swenson-Healey

A Tribute to a Special Volunteer

BY SKY ISLAND ALLIANCE STAFF

A few years back, I had been a retired nurse with too much time on my hands and really needed to get out of the house. One day, I happened upon a Sky Island Alliance information booth at the Festival of Books and found what I was looking for.

As a volunteer, […] trips with SIA have taken me to places very few have ever walked and introduced me to people I might not have ever known otherwise: students, other retirees, ranchers, birders, animal trackers, botanists, entomologists, biologists, hydrologists, astronomers, resource and land managers. I am especially encouraged from meeting young people passionate about the environment and seeing their potential. Beyond that, I’m learning about the flora, fauna, and geology of the area and the enormous importance of water.

– Tom Swenson-Healey, November 2019

In July 2021, we lost one of our greatest supporters at Sky Island Alliance — and the world lost, in the words of Tom’s son, Erin, “a super rad dude.”

Tom was someone who cared deeply about people and the state of the world. In his professional life he worked jobs that allowed him to make a difference in the lives of people; in quality control for a medical equipment manufacturer and later in life as a psychiatric nurse. In his personal life, he traveled and volunteered in the Middle East, trying to gain a better understanding of the consequences of conflict there.

Photo Caption: Tom standing in the middle of a field of grass, smiling and looking away from the camera.

And in his retirement, he sought out organizations in his adopted home of Tucson where he could devote himself to helping others and the environment, including Tucson Audubon Society, Mission Garden, Literacy Connects, & Sky Island Alliance.

At Sky Island Alliance, Tom dove into all our efforts, going above and beyond most volunteers in the call of duty. You could find him, at any given moment, bushwhacking through mountains in search of springs, digging out some of the region’s worst invasive species, installing native plants for wild pollinators, chatting up folks at local outreach events, and more.

Photo Caption: Tom goofing around in Aravaipa Canyon during a planting trip.

Tom was basically a quarter-time employee at Sky Island Alliance; in 2018 alone, he volunteered over 400 hours of his time to our mission.

In fact, not only did Tom donate his time to our work — he also gave immeasurable quantities of blood, sweat, and tears to the Sky Island region. Tom would bleed so much on our trips that it became a running joke, spawning t-shirt design ideas such as “Be a blood donor: volunteer with Sky Island Alliance!”

Getting out and making a difference was much more important to Tom than how he got there or how comfortable he was. When he first started volunteering with us, he didn’t own a pack, let alone backpacking gear. However, that didn’t stop him from signing up for some of our most remote and rugged trips. In the beginning, our staff recall how he simply assembled a hodgepodge of begged for, borrowed, and dirt-cheap equipment. For food, he made do eating from cans and packets.

Most important of all, Tom had a wicked and quirky sense of humor that brought levity to the hardest of jobs. He was a source of constant enthusiasm in the field, for staff and volunteers alike, and maintained true humility about the impact he had on our organization. Please read the tribute below for another perspective on Tom and his many interests and contributions to conservation.

Tom was a great friend to the Sky Islands and to all of us who knew and worked with him.

He will be sorely missed.


Tom Swenson-Healey

BY BILL BINKERT

We recently lost a good friend. You may know him from his volunteer work with Sky Island Alliance. He spent literally hundreds and hundred of hours on various projects. He spent weeks doing backpacks and day hikes to measure springs in Southeastern Arizona.

Tom helped with planting of walnut trees on Mt. Lemmon to benefit endemic squirrel populations. He assisted with the removed barbed wire fencing from Buenos Aires Nat’l. Monument. He helped with planting of perennial plants on a burn scar near the Gila Cliff dwellings in New Mexico. Tom helped with Saguaro cactus counts in Saguaro Park. He pulled Vinca in Arivaipa Canyon. Tom even did many hours of data reduction in the office of Sky Island Alliance.

Photo Caption: Tom taking notes on a clipboard while out on a spring assessment with Sky Island Alliance staff.

In addition to his volunteer work with Sky Island Alliance, he gave his time to other causes:

  • He helped kindergarten children to learn to read by visiting schools a couple of times a week to read to the children.
  • He spent hours helping the Tucson Botanical Garden landscape their property.
  • He went to the Patagonia area to help the Audubon Society improve the habitat of the Sonoita Creek wetlands.
  • He helped with a count of the Yellow-billed cuckoo.
  • He volunteered time to improve the Mission Gardens nursery.
  • He helped revegetate an abandoned telescope site on Kitt Peak.

With all of that…he had such a gung-ho spirit. Point him to any project and he would attack it…no matter how difficult or how dirty he would get (P.S. I think he really like getting muddy)!

During the past year of not getting out, he often called me to talk about events, philosophy, or just mundane things. I was always impressed with how well-read he was. Besides current events, he would bring up very esoteric subjects. One never quite knew what was going to be next with Tom.

He was energetic…he had a generous spirit, always looking for ways to help people…his laugh was infectious…he will certainly be missed!

Photo Caption: Tom taking a moment during a spring assessment to check a plant identification field guide.