William A. Swain Sr., 88, of Germantown, among the first African American printers in Philadelphia to be granted a union imprimatur, died Wednesday, Sept. 6, of an aortic aneurysm at Penn Hospice at Rittenhouse.
During the heyday of the printing trade unions in the second half of the 20th century, union approval was important because without it, the industry and reading public had no way of knowing that the printer had attained a high level of skill in the trade.
When Mr. Swain, a descendant of Southern sharecroppers, was given the right to use the Allied Printing Trades Council’s union label in the mid-1950s, he was thrilled, said his daughter Valarie Swain-Cade McCoullum.
“He felt it was just an extraordinary acknowledgement of his position in the printing community,” she said. “That was the badge of distinction. He had reached the summit of his trade.”
His first printing press was in the basement of the Swain family home on Magnolia Street. “I would go to sleep with the lullaby of the press. It wouldn’t work for everyone, but it worked for me,” his daughter said. Later, the press would be moved into a separate building.
Known as “Bill,” Mr. Swain found numerous applications for his vocation. From 1956 to 1988, he was founding supervisor of the reprographics department at the Free Library of Philadelphia. In that role, he did any in-house printing the library needed.
“If there was any type of celebration or event, Daddy would print the posters,” his daughter said.
In 1977, Mr. Swain and his wife, Ena Lindner Swain, opened Swain’s Printing & Accounting at 6228 Germantown Ave. It became the go-to place for event books and fliers that the black community wanted in print.
Mr. Swain churned out business cards, personalized stationery, and brochures. His wife did the bookkeeping, wrote the orders, and billed the clients.
“It was a mom-and-pop operation. He would do the printing at night and on weekends. I was in the office during the day,” his wife said.
Mr. Swain’s business acumen made him something of a celebrity. From 1951 to 1990, he was a e confidante of Philadelphia Mayor and later U.S. Sen. Joseph S. Clark Jr., his family said.
In 1971, Mr. Swain was given a distinguished service citation for his work in promoting access to the city’s trade unions and as a public high-school lecturer for the Graphic Arts Association of Delaware Valley.
Born to Cardie Sneed Swain and August Novell Swain Sr. in Dale, Texas, Mr. Swain graduated from the Lincoln-Ball High School in Seguin, Texas. After graduating, he enlisted in the Marine Corps, where he learned the printing trade. He served during the Korean War and was honorably discharged with the rank of staff sergeant.
He followed his mother to Philadelphia.
The Swains married in 1951, and settled in Germantown to rear their four children. They were married for 66 years.
Mr. Swain was active with the Boy Scout Troop No. 216 and the Boys Club at Mallery Playground. He mentored many young men there. In 1978, he received an Outstanding Service Award for his work as vice president of the Philadelphia Citywide Recreation Advisory Council, an offshoot of the Department of Recreation.
Mr. Swain adored his large family, which grew to 14 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. In turn, his family “was fiercely devoted to him,” his daughter said.
For 55 years, he entertained them at his summer beach house in Wildwood, where he enjoyed sitting on the porch, sipping bourbon. He liked playing pinochle, and going crabbing and salt-water fishing.
“The pilgrimages to Wildwood were filled with, joy, warmth, humor, and love that will sustain us for the rest of our lives,” his daughter said.
Surviving, in addition to his wife, daughter, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, are another daughter, Gail Swain Harrison; sons William A. Swain Jr. and Brian Anthony Swain; and many nieces and nephews.
A visitation starting at 8 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 16, will be followed by a 10 a.m. funeral service at Christ Church and St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Tulpehocken and McCallum Streets, Philadelphia 19144. Burial is in Ivy Hill Cemetery.
Mr. Swain loved growing flowers, especially camellias. In recognition of his green thumb, the family asks that flowers be sent to the church.