This is a story that could have appeared last Monday, when the nation was honoring those who have died to preserve our freedom.
But because the real Memorial Day was three days ago, the day I wrote this, we're close enough for government work. What does Memorial Day have to do with business in Phoenix? All you need to answer that question is a visit with Joe Schwan, president of Double "AA" Constructors Inc.
He will teach you a lesson in patriotism that you will never forget. It comes from experience, and directly from his heart.
Schwan is what you might call a pillar of the Valley's construction industry; he's been putting up buildings here for more than 25 years. His credits include La Posada Resort on Lincoln Drive, the fancy Borgata of Scottsdale, several major new hotels with names like Hilton and Holiday Inn, 15 of the 22 Smitty's stores in the Valley and the unusual three-story complex that houses his corporate offices at 16th Street and Cambridge in Phoenix.
He figures he's responsible for 300 new buildings in Phoenix since starting his company in 1960, plus a lot of remodeling work, and 200 more in the Chicago area in the decade before that.
Schwan said he has $63.9 million worth of projects under construction right now, including a 133,000-square-foot
shopping community center in Sedona and a commercial complex in the
Chinatown section of Los Angeles.
But you don't hear much about
Schwan. He goes about his business without a lot of fanfare, just as he
serves in a range of civic organizations without much notoriety.
That's where Schwan's patriotism enters the picture.
He didn't name his
company Double "AA" Constructors just so he could be listed first in the Yellow Pages. The name is derived from the "All-American" Division, as the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division is known. Schwan was a member during World War II.
As a civilian in 1954, Schwan was national president of the 82nd Airborne Association. Schwan doesn't brag about his military service, which spanned most of World War II and included battle action as a tank commander and engineer as well as paratrooper, it emerges only slowly and in bits and pieces during a long conversation with him.
Schwan didn't have to die for his country, but you get the idea he was ready to if called upon.
He's definitely not one of those paramilitary nuts who runs around talking about the need for military preparedness, just because he's fascinated with guns, or his image in a uniform, or because he likes to beat up on people.
No, Schwan's feelings come from very, very deep within himself. They take a long time to bubble forth, but when they do, he can't hold them back.
He can't stop the tears that underscore his appreciation for America's freedoms, and for the need, as he puts it, for everyone, that means everyone to "get up and do things for their country."
"Most people in this country don't realize what they have and don't do anything to help preserve it," Schwan says quietly, reflectively.
"But we have to do the utmost to protect our freedom, because otherwise we may not have it long." A lot of people have said that through the years since the United States was founded, especially in speeches on July 4th and Memorial Day.
But Schwan does not make speeches; he merely states facts, facts with which he is all too familiar.
It is difficult to translate his intensity and
sincerity into the printed word. Schwan was born in Russia, 63 years
ago. And he still has "many, many relatives" living there.
Some have served time in Siberia. His parents had brothers and sisters "who were lined up against a wall and machine-gunned." His grandfather was killed as well, by the Bolsheviks.
"My brother and sister went to visit our relatives a few years ago, and, believe me, they learned what freedom is, and what freedom isn't," Schwan says.
learned that freedom means the opportunity to get an education, to go to
school, to go after the job they want, to work certain hours, to go into
business for themselves," and to worship God the way they want and hold
the political beliefs they want.
"They learned to appreciate their
American citizenship," Schwan says. "Our freedoms are found nowhere
else, not in any other country. I've been to China. . ." and his voice
That Schwan served in the U.S. Army at all is a story in
itself. In 1926, when Schwan was just 3 years old, his father, who had
served in the czar's army, literally bought his way out of Russia so his
family could get to the United States.
But then, in 1941, the U.S.
government, wanted to send them all back to Russia, because they had
entered the country illegally.
"That was just when Germany was invading
Russia, and they wanted to put us back there. Can you imagine that?"
The problem eventually was straightened out, and the family
stayed. Schwan builder's life won't go into details, but the whole
affair apparently was pretty ugly.
What was Schwan's reaction? Did he harbor a grudge
against his new homeland? No. He went to enlist in the U.S. Army to help
preserve the freedom he'd found here.
Even that was a struggle. The Army wouldn't take him at first. He had to try four times, and succeeded only after U.S. officials got clearance from Moscow.
Schwan's sense of family runs both backward and forward. Through all the wars and upheavals in Europe and Asia, he's managed to keep track of many relatives and his family tree.
In 1983, he visited Europe and found his way to the house occupied by his great-great-grandfather in the 1700s, in the Alsace-Lorraine region of France, before the family emigrated to Russia in 1807.
And now Schwan's wife and five children all are part owners of his various construction-related companies in Phoenix; his three sons have been part of the businesses for as long as 11 years, as is Schwan's brother, Anthony.
Schwan's one son, also named Joe, also served in the 82nd Airborne Division.
It's not that America made an easy life for Schwan. After growing up on a South Dakota farm during the Depression, he graduated in the top 10 percent of his high school class, but had to postpone his schooling at that point to help support the family.
After the war, he went to night school in Chicago to learn engineering and architecture while working from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. as a carpenter.
But it is clear that he feels his business today has been a success only because America is free.
"I believe everyone should do a part on the federal, state and local level to contribute to government," Schwan said.
[Arizona Republic, Phoenix, AZ, 02 Jun 1986, Mon, Page 25]