Emily Swan

Obituary of Emily Whitfield Swan

Of Squirrel Hill, 78, wife of Oscar E. Swan III; mother of Oscar IV of Warsaw, Poland, and Stephanie A. Swan of Morgantown, WV; grandmother of Oscar V and Ignacy, and also survived by many relatives in Hungary, died of neuro-endocrine cancer peacefully and in comfort, and with her family by her side, on Thursday, February 11, 2021. Speaking with a slight Hungarian accent until, toward the end, she fell mute, Emily concealed behind the accent a maelstrom of life experiences that those who drew close to her could sometimes learn about in snippets. Many had trouble believing that such a gentle, generous, and gregarious person as Emily could have had such a tumultuous and disjointed childhood behind her and still come out with an upbeat view on life. Emily was born as Valeria Bokor of a Jewish mother and a Catholic father in the midst of World War II in Budapest, Hungary. Her father disappeared without trace on the Romanian front, while Valeria and her mother’s family hid in the basement storage cubby of their Budapest apartment, for this was the beginning of the Nazi deportation of Jews from Hungary. After the war, Vali, as was her nickname, was raised until the age of eight by her staunchly Catholic grandmother and, after her grandmother’s death, until the sixth grade by a variety of relatives and non-relatives in different towns across Hungary. Emily always attributed to the years spent with her grandmother her strong self of self and need for stability. At the height of the anti-Soviet Hungarian uprising of 1956, at the age of twelve and for all intents and purposes on her own, Vali boarded a train headed for a town near the Austrian border. Once there, she paid what little money she had from working in her father-in-law’s candy shop to be led through the snowy night across the heavily guarded frontier. Along with a handful of other escapees, she trudged ahead until she finally saw ahead of her the lights of an Austrian safe house. Until 1960 and the age of sixteen Vali lived in a string of refugee camps and boarding schools in Austria until being adopted by a charity-minded spinster from Highland Park, Illinois. In this way she began life in the United States, suddenly finding herself, with a sixth-grade Hungarian education and not knowing a word of English, as a junior in high school in an affluent north Chicago suburb with the arch-Anglo name Emily Whitfield, a name she ultimately would almost grow into. Under the influence of her American mother, Emily became an American citizen, a lifelong Republican, and a member of the Episcopal church. After high school Emily enrolled in Lake Forest College, transferring in her junior year to the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. She met her future husband in 1964 during summer school at the University of Indiana, and she joined him shortly afterwards at the University of California, Berkeley, from which in 1968 she received a master’s degree in Slavic Languages and Literatures, while her husband earned his doctorate in the same field. Emily and Oscar moved to Pittsburgh from Berkeley in 1975. Emily earned a certificate in accounting from the University of Pittsburgh, while Oscar taught, and is still teaching, in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures. After helping to put her two children through college by working for several years as chief financial officer for several local businesses, Emily cut back a bit, but continued to work part time into her late seventies as an independent small business and personal accountant. After her own childhood as a virtual war-orphan, Emily’s priority was to protect and uplift her family. Her home provided a peaceful, loving, supportive environment where she was quick to praise other people’s accomplishments. She listened attentively to stories and gave good advice. She was the consummate diplomat and settler of arguments whenever family disagreements arose. She planned her weekly menus far in advance after looking through every single food flyer in the Sunday paper. To her, every meal together was a blessing and a chance to set a beautiful table. She enjoyed throwing her annual Christmas sing-alongs, summer backyard buffets, and dinner parties throughout the year. “May it turn into good health in you,” was how she opened and closed almost every meal she served. Late in life Emily revisited Hungary, renewed contact with her numerous relations there, and made peace with her biological mother, from whom she had long been estranged, and who died shortly after their last meeting. Emily also adored visiting her son Oscar, his Polish wife Barbara, and her two grandsons in Warsaw. Just before her death, with the help of Zoom the entire family had a chance to gather and say their final words to her about what they remembered and valued most about having had her in their lives. Her grandsons remembered above all how easy she was to talk to on an intelligent level, and what a thoughtful listener she was. Besides being a voracious reader, avid gardener, and enthusiastic foreign traveler, Emily was an active member in the P.E.O. Sisterhood, the Highland Park Garden Club, and St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church. For twenty years she worked as minority inspector and judge of elections in Ward 14, Allegheny County. Her women friends remember her as stylish, witty, worldly, attentive, spiritual, patriotic, positive, thoughtful, kind, determined, and resilient. May they and we be better people for having known her. Services will be conducted via Zoom on Thursday, February 18, 2021 at 2:00 pm, with Father Christopher Cole of St. Andrews Church, Highland Park officiating. Please visit https://www.standrewspgh.org/ for a link to the live Memorial Service. In lieu of flowers, the family encourages donations in Emily’s name to the International Peace Scholarship Fund, c/o P.E.O. Sisterhood, 3700 Grand Avenue, Des Moines, IA 50312-2899 or at https://www.peointernational.org/ and click on “Giving Opportunities.” Condolences may be left at www.mccabebrothers.com