Martha Herriott Swift placed a small announcement in the Chicago Tribune for its obituary page on July 2, 2003: “Swift, Janet Herriott/ Happy 90th birthday, Mother/ We miss you/ Martha and Nathan.”
Although her mother died in 1979, Martha still memorialized her with a public birthday wish 24 years later, a gesture that reflects the unique personality of her daughter, a longtime Morgan Park resident who died on Nov. 23, 2016, at age 82.
Martha was part of the fabric of the community and justifiably proud of her heritage. Her great-grandfather was David A. Herriott (1863-1960), the first postmaster of Morgan Park and founder of The Post, which eventually merged with another newspaper to evolve into The Beverly Review.
She was also a member of the family descended from Gustavus F. Swift, founder of the meat-packing empire and developer of the first practical ice-cooled railroad car.
Martha made an impression on those she met, and everyone who knew her has a favorite “Martha story” to tell.
Martha’s biggest fan was Dean A. Miller, Ph.D., a history professor and her husband of 36 years. As expected, he has a treasure trove of memories. Take yodeling, for example.
“Martha took a course in yodeling from the Old Town School of Folk Music,” said Miller. “And she really did learn to yodel. We’d be in a crowd and get separated; where’s Martha? ‘Yo-da-lay-de-hoo!’ I’m fairly easy to mark in a crowd, being tall, but she was shorter. So, that was the way she would tell me where she was. People in the crowd would look around.”
Miller’s neighbor recently reminded him of another story.
“They had just moved in, and all of a sudden, here comes this weird noise,” Miller said. “Martha was standing on our back deck, yodeling. I was somewhere in the area, and she was getting my attention. They had never heard anything like it.”
Martha’s son, John Herriott Swift, an elementary special-education teacher who lives in Kansas, remembered another of her unique methods of communicating.
“Mom kept a long, blue plastic funnel on the kitchen counter to hold rubber bands,” said John. “It was the kind you use to change transmission fluid in a car, with a long, curved stem, about 18 inches long. She used it like a trumpet to call us to dinner. … We’d hear the fanfare wherever we were.”
In 1914, David Herriott used his eloquent way with words and the power of the press to help bring about the annexation of Morgan Park to Chicago.
The Herriotts were known for their “progressive” ways, a mindset that Martha upheld. In a 1939 article in The Beverly Review, David said he “believed absolutely in all churches.” He advocated for an international peace organization and for early legislation on automobile safety.
Janet Richardson Herriott, David’s wife, was the second woman to vote in Cook County when women won limited suffrage in 1913. Their son, Irving, Martha’s grandfather and Zenith Radio Corporation director and general counsel, was the organizer of the National Association of Broadcasters in 1922.
Irving Herriott married Juanita C. Howard, and their daughter Marion Janet was born in 1913. Janet, as she was known, married Clinton White, and to this union was born Martha on Aug. 24, 1934. When this marriage ended, Martha spent her earliest years living with her grandparents in Morgan Park, with great-grandfather David right around the corner.
In 1939, Janet married Nathan Butler Swift, a great-grandson of Gustavus F. Swift, and a year later, Janet and Nathan had a son, Nathan, Jr.
Nathan’s duties with Swift and Co. took his family to South Dakota and Oregon, and it was here that Martha began a lifelong interest in Native-American culture.
“My mother loved being a Campfire Girl in Oregon,” said John. “They based a lot of their activities on Native-American culture. She was given the name ‘Mylota.’”
He recalled when friends from France visited his mother in Morgan Park.
“We all piled into the van and drove to the Menomonee reservation in Wisconsin to attend a powwow.”
After a few years out west, Nathan’s family returned to Morgan Park to live in the Herriott Family home on the 10800 block of South Hoyne Avenue. Martha attended the Loring School for Girls, a private school that was located in the current Beacon Therapeutic School at 107th Street and Longwood Drive.
Her mother graduated from Loring in 1930.
At age 15, Martha was adopted by her step-father and became Martha Swift.
In a court case that established rights for adopted descendants, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled in 1995 that, based on 1989 changes in the law, Martha and her offspring were lawful descendants of great-grandfather Louis F. Swift and could inherit from his estate.
In 1952, Martha graduated from Loring, where she was voted “Most Dramatic” in her class. In 1951, the Suburbanite Economist reported that Latin students at Loring presented their annual Roman Christmas celebration, the Saturnalia. Martha performed in the senior dramatic skit, “Our School in Roman Times.”
Loring closed in 1962, and Morgan Park Academy (MPA), which had been Loring’s “brother” school, assumed responsibility for alumni activities.
Martha enrolled at Northwestern University, where she met Miller in 1953.
“We first encountered each other at a bookshop … when I was a senior and Martha was a freshman. Then she introduced herself to me at a party, something pretty bold for a woman to do at the time. That was Martha. We later became informally engaged.
“In June, I went home to Rock Island, and Martha went on vacation with her family,” said Miller. “But later that summer, her father was killed in a car accident right in front of Martha, her mother and her brother. Our relationship was cut short by the stress of all that was going on.”
Another factor in their separation, Miller said, was Martha’s mother.
“Her mother didn’t approve of me. I like to say she thought I was a communist and a fortune-hunter, a rare combination. Martha and I exchanged a few letters through the years after that, but that was about it.”
Martha was 17 when her father Nathan, 41, was killed in August 1953 returning from dinner at a restaurant near their summer home in Michigan. He was driving and was followed in another car by his wife, daughter and son.
In November 1953, her grandfather Irving, 67, also died.
Those personal tragedies happened during Martha’s “coming out” year, when she became an official Chicago debutante.
As was expected of socially prominent young women, Martha kept an active calendar. The Chicago Tribune reported that Martha had a “starring role” at the Passavant Hospital Debutante Cotillion and Christmas Ball at the Conrad Hilton Hotel on Dec. 23, 1953.
Her grandmother, Mrs. Alden B. Swift, was past president of the hospital woman’s board, and Martha was escorted by her great-great-uncle, Harold H. Swift, chairman of the board of Swift and Co., standing in for the late Nathan.
The months surrounding the ball were filled with dinner parties, teas and dances. And there were several modeling opportunities. One was with Horst P. Horst, the fashion and society photographer who worked with Vogue magazine and snapped the likes of Jackie Kennedy.
In 1955, the Chicago Tribune reported that Martha was elected to the Passavant Hospital Cotillion Auxiliary and Junior Board, which was raising $10,000 for a chapel in a new wing of the hospital.
Martha completed her bachelor’s degree in modern languages and English at Northwestern University in 1956.
Martha married John Harcourt Hall, Jr. in 1957. They honeymooned in New Orleans then settled in San Francisco. Their son John was born in 1959. The marriage ended in 1963.
Martha returned to her ancestral home on Hoyne Avenue, which became her residence for the rest of her life.
John’s favorite memory of his mother came from those years.
“I was 6. Mom rented a room at the Shore Drive Motel on South Shore Drive, and we spent three or four days going through the Museum of Science and Industry,” he said. “She let me take my own time to explore everything. The pendulum was particularly fascinating.”
For many years, Martha’s mother Janet helped raise funds for the Community Fund and the USO in the 1950s, and she was active with the Morgan Park Improvement Association in the 1970s. During Janet’s declining years, Martha cared for her until her death in 1979.
Miller said he also reconnected with Martha that year.
“I got the Northwestern alumni magazine. Martha had taken out a subscription, and there she was, with her maiden name. I sent Martha a letter. She took six months to reply; but finally she wrote back, and we got together. I continued to visit frequently, and we married on Oct. 13, 1980.”
For about 20 years, Martha was a teacher at MPA. She taught French, Spanish, German and occasionally English, serving as head of the language department for a time. She earned a master’s degree in foreign languages from St. Xavier College (now University) in 1974.
She continued as a substitute teacher even after retiring from MPA in 1983.
Her career embodied the passion for which this educator will be best remembered; quite simply, Martha loved words.
She loved the sound of the spoken word; she loved the origin of words; she loved the use of words, and she loved to play with words. She loved conversation. She loved puns.
“Language is fascinating—this was always my mother’s belief,” said John. “She taught me how to read when I was 4, using phonics comic strips. This was pretty innovative for the time.”
“Martha did have a great love for language, either done properly or the weird mishandling of it,” said Miller. “We have a library full of books about language and about language that is askew, slang, dirty words, anything like that, anything that has to do with the way people communicate.
“She had an ear for some languages. She loved French,” continued Miller. “She took summer courses in France, where she made great lifelong friends. She created a pun in French. The French would tell you that was not possible, only a French person could create a pun in French. But I was there! I could point to the exact spot in this Parisian street where she gobsmacked this waiter by making a pun. She was proud of herself.”
One habit of Martha’s was a propensity to correct others—at any time and any place—when they made mistakes with language.
“When people would screw up in any language she knew,” said Miller, “especially in French, but in English, too, you were going to hear about it.”
Her students understood that, and upon hearing of her death, they posted on Facebook.
“I loved when she would sub for us,” one posted. “She was quirky, loveable and really, really dedicated to teaching. Au revoir, Madame.”
Another post summed her up beautifully.
“Madame Swift was a great teacher. She taught with an iron fist wearing a satin glove. RIP.”
Miller said it pleased Martha when her students referred to her as “Madame.”
Martha loved traveling, and the list of countries she visited, often as academic excursions with Miller, is impressive: Belgium, Ireland, Spain, Finland, the Czech Republic, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Peru. France and Scotland were particular favorites.
Her house on Hoyne holds an eclectic collection of memorabilia from those trips, other interests and family heirlooms, ranging from primitive masks to fine fabric work to Oriental cutlery to milagros, which are religious folk charms.
Martha was a “noticer,” Miller said, a person who stopped and studied everything and everyone.
The Herriott Family was always interested in local history, and Martha was no exception. Her great-grand parents had been active in an early Morgan Park Historical Society. David Herriott wrote a series of history articles in 1939-40 for The Beverly Review. Janet Herriott Swift was a founding member of the Ridge Historical Society (RHS), of which Martha was a contributor of artifacts and information.
“Martha could be very unconventional,” said Linda Lamberty, RHS historian, “but I always found that—and her passion for everything she discussed—to be refreshing. Her ancestors who took bold stands on historic events here on the Ridge clearly passed on their strength and intelligence to her. She was a one-of-a-kind local treasure, always happy to share from her well of knowledge.”
Lamberty also has a favorite Martha story.
“One day I was at Martha’s home, and I asked if her great-grandfather had talked about the location of Horse Thief Hollow,” said Lamberty. “She marched me up the block to the intersection with 108th Place, facing east. She swept her arm dramatically at the vista down the hill and said, ‘Right here is Horse Thief Hollow!’”
With Martha’s departure, another connection to the community’s earliest days was lost.
The Morgan Park Woman’s Club (MPWC) was founded in 1889, and Janet Richardson Herriott was a member from its beginning. A century later, Martha was a member of the MPWC and the Morgan Park Junior Woman’s Club. She chaired several committees for the Juniors, members said, and she was always willing to help.
Doris Moulton, past president of both clubs as well as RHS, shared another Martha story.
“When reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, Martha always skipped ‘under God,’” said Moulton. “Even if you didn’t see her, you always knew Martha was at a meeting because someone finished two words ahead of everyone else. She said she never accepted the wording change in the pledge. One thing about Martha, she always told it like it was. You don’t come across a whole lot of Marthas in your life. She was very easily one of the most unique people I ever met.”
Congress adopted the Pledge in 1942, and the phrase “under God” was added in 1954, mostly in response to communism and atheism.
According to Miller, Martha was always interested in the separation of church and state.
“She had a somewhat complicated relationship with church. Her family was members of the Church of the Mediator, and Martha sang in the choir when she was young. But she got angry with the Episcopal Church in the 1950s when it wouldn’t ordain women.”
Starting with her earliest visits to France, Martha became enamored with fabric arts. In addition to collecting those, Martha created her own works. She joined the Beverly Hills Embroiderers’ Guild in 1987, where she taught counted-cross-stitch classes, displayed work in the annual show and served as president for several years.
“Martha liked more structured, geometric patterns,” said Ede Iversen, a close friend. “She did not like samplers; she did not like flowery things. She liked colorful patterns that were repetitive. She was a precision person; when she did something, she wanted to do it right. It would bother her if she dropped a stitch; it would have to come out.”
Precision, Iversen said, also applied to Martha’s appreciation of language, which Iversen witnessed while dining with her.
“The waitress came over and said, ‘What would you guys like?’ Martha answered, ‘Do we look like guys?’ The rest of us sort of cringed,” Iversen said. “We might agree with her, but she would be the one to have the courage to actually say something.
“That was just Martha’s way. She corrected people on their grammar or pronunciation. But then she would always grin and say, ‘Well, you know, it’s the teacher in me. I can’t resist.’”
Moulton said Martha never meant to hurt anyone.
“But, she wasn’t going to let an error go by,” she said. “If you were going to be her friend, you had to accept that she might embarrass you. Usually this meant publicly correcting you.”
Miller said a friend described Martha as possessing a sense of humor that “could draw blood.”
“This was true,” he said, “but she made and kept good friends due to her ebullient and ever-curious nature and her obvious intelligence, humor and goodwill. I received condolences from as far away as Russia.”
Martha had an interest in the Beverly Art Center dating back to its days on the MPA campus. She loved to volunteer for the auction, and Miller served as a bartender.
Martha donated memorabilia from Loring School and MPA to the MPA archives. An article in the November 2004 MPA Magazine reported that when Martha and Dean moved a piano at their home, they discovered a photograph of the 1904 MPA graduating class, which included Irving Herriot.
A founding member of the Herriott Heritage Society, Martha served as a board member, and she was proud of her Scottish heritage and was a life member of the Illinois St. Andrew’s Society.
Other genealogical research on her mother’s side revealed prominent Hispanic ancestors, the Casires, in California.
According to Miller, Martha liked to stockpile commodities such as the 10,000 Tetley tea bags she had in fear that her favorite tea would be discontinued. Last fall, she was encountered with a shopping cart full of Pepperidge Farm Chesapeake cookies at a local grocery store. She explained these were Miller’s favorite so she bought them whenever she found them. She had the entire store inventory in her cart.
In her later years, Martha became a grandmother. Emerson Swift was born to son John and his wife Nancy in 2014.
“Mom really liked being a grandmother,” said John. “Emerson was born when she was nearing 80, and he was at the stage where he sometimes responded positively and sometimes said no. Mom wanted Emerson to address her as ‘Meme,’ which is French for ‘Granny.’ He said, ‘I love you, Meme,’ a couple of times, and the last time he saw her he said that and gave her a hug.”
The last few months were hard for Martha because of arthritis. Hip replacement surgery in September was successful, but a series of medical complications led to her death.
“Martha’s purpose in life was to try to make people laugh,” said Miller. Anyone without a sense of humor was lost to humanity, as far as Martha was concerned.”
Martha is survived by her husband, Dean A. Miller; her son, John H. (Nancy) Swift; her grandson, Emerson Swift, and her brother, Nathan Butler Jr. (Melinda) Swift.
In the 1939 article in The Beverly Review article, David Herriott was quoted as saying, “It’s a good thing to leave a few footmarks that will do the world some good.”
Martha Herriott Swift left those footmarks.