Melba Ruth Graffius Swoyer, née Tenney, age 77, passed away at Evanston Hospital on Tuesday morning, June 14. Her husband, son and two stepdaughters were by her side. 

Melba Ruth Graffius Swoyer Credit: Submitted

Melba was born in Little Rock, Ark., on June 3, 1945. Those who knew her best knew her life’s many rich stories – losing her own mom at the age of 1, her early years of being raised in an orphanage, attending Little Rock Central High School, nighttime stakeouts with her sister Shirley (a detective at the time), her many travel experiences around the globe (on which she always carried her own pillow), and how she earned an MBA (Lake Forest College) without an undergraduate college degree. 

From her early job as a secretary at Sperry Rand (her Gregg shorthand skills would fascinate her young stepdaughters) to her senior-level roles in marketing and communications at Allstate, United Airlines (Technology Division) and Montgomery Ward, Melba connected with hundreds of people throughout her career.

A strong woman in a man’s corporate world, she could infuriate some who felt threatened by her inimitable style, but more often she was respected and admired by her bosses, colleagues and those who worked for her. In her later career, Melba joined her husband in his communications consulting practice, Cobey Communications. 

She was a consultant with the John Howard Association, which independently monitors correctional facilities, policies and practices. She was also Director of Development and Communications and interim Executive Director at Housing Options for the Mentally Ill, Evanston and board President of the Rogers Park PACTT Learning Center, which provides educational, residential, and vocational programs to support children and adults with autism.

Melba’s undying compassion for others was undoubtedly influenced some by her own personal adversity in her early life. An ally, an advocate, a mentor, Melba devoted endless hours supporting those closest to her as well as strangers in need. Her time spent as a hospice volunteer in her retirement encapsulated this well. 

Of equal import was Melba’s passion and love for her animal friends – particularly cats. Throughout their almost 40-year marriage, Melba and her husband sheltered and fostered numerous cats – too many to list here – each with their own distinct personality, just like her.               

Melba lived life unabashedly – her hands on the wheel, one foot on the gas and the other on the clutch with the wind in her hair – breaking rules that were made to be broken. A fiercely independent woman of her generation, Melba was always up for adventure and loved spontaneity.

Sometimes adventure looked like a last-minute flight on stand-by on a Friday night, or sometimes it meant driving down Lake Shore Drive to ride the Ferris wheel past bedtime.

She was a great cook known for her spaghetti and meatballs and chicken enchiladas and she enjoyed the days when a weekend meant a full house with dear friends and stimulating conversation, or festive holiday parties complete with singing, games, magic and libations.               

A deeply thoughtful gift-giver, Melba loved thrifting and delighted in the search for that perfect find at a local Sunday garage sale after reading The New York Times from front to back (she loved reading the obituaries and finding out about people’s lives). 

Melba enjoyed listening to music (and singing along), road trips with her husband Ken, and taking her grandchildren (who called her Mimi) for new experiences, always homing in on their personal interests.

Melba enjoyed following the careers of her kids and celebrating her growing grandchildren, loved a good old-fashioned phone call and approached life with an infectious “why not?” attitude that left many of her friends and family to wonder exactly that: why not?!

At the end of the day, rain or shine, hot or cold, Melba delighted in settling in for the night in front of a crackling fire with her husband by her side, a gin and tonic (Tanqueray) in her hand and a cat on her lap.

Melba was preceded in death by her parents, Josephine and Martin, a brother Charles, and a sister Shirley. She is survived by her brother Martin (Myra); her husband, Ken Swoyer; her son, Kenneth Casey Swoyer; two stepdaughters, Jessica Swoyer Green (Dominic) and Cobey Swoyer Struckmeyer (Erich); as well as her grandchildren Elliot, Henry, Bennett, Oliver and Spencer.               

A celebration of her life will take place at a future date.               

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made in her name to the Evanston Animal Shelter (847.866.5082, 2310 Oakton St., Evanston, IL 60202); NorthShore University Health System Hospice (4901 Searle Parkway, Suite 160, Skokie, IL 60077; and/or the New Mexico Holocaust Museum (PO Box 1762, Albuquerque, NM 87103).               

Lastly, in her final days, Melba’s beloved son Casey gently, lovingly sang to her all of the very songs she sang to him at bedtime when he was young. 

There by her side, day by day, until her very last breath. No doubt a testament to her. We continue to sing her song. And we miss her so.              

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  1. Melba was so much fun, and expressive in her interest in life. I loved having her in my life and enjoyed her observations of all things. The world is missing a truly great work now.

  2. So sorry to hear. I remember numerous rides together involving PACTT. She was such a brilliant, caring person. She will be missed!

  3. My siblings and I grew up in the same house as Aunt Melba. Her sister was our mother, Shirley. Melba was already preparing for her strong woman reputation, enlisting us to help her sneak out of the house through our bedroom window. And she became a force for good in this world. She touched many lives. I miss our phone calls already. The world needs more Aunt Melbas.

  4. Melba-
    Thanks for your kindness, support, and great conversations over the years.
    Most of all, thanks for being you!

    It was a pleasure knowing you.
    You are missed.

  5. I only knew of Melba through friendships with family, but this extraordinarily written and beautiful testament to her life has given me precious insight to her incredible and well-lived life. No doubt, her love, energy and joie de vivre will be incredibly missed. Sending prayers of comfort to all the family.

  6. So sorry to hear of Melba’s passing. I remember taking this picture of her. She was so happy and lovely and we had a fun time. I remember that she most enjoyed hugging our two dogs during her visit. May her memory always be a blessing to you and your family.