Following the theme of "hometown girl made good," Samford University dedicated Bonnie Bolding Swearingen Hall Oct. 14. The building, which includes the north wing of Samford's fine arts complex, houses Ben F. Harrison Theatre, Bolding Studio, the Samford Art Gallery and offices and classrooms for the theatre and art departments.
Swearingen, who grew up in Birmingham, graduated from then Howard College in 1955. She had a career in Hollywood and as a stockbroker before her marriage to John Swearingen, retired chief executive officer of Standard Oil. She currently serves on Samford's board of overseers.
A gift from Swearingen provided for refurbishing Harrison Theatre, the theatre lobby and box office, dressing rooms and Bolding Studio, the former music recital hall which has been reconfigured and updated to allow for both music and theatre performances. Bolding Studio is named for Swearingen's parents.
Samford's board of trustees chair William Stevens of Birmingham set the tone for the ceremony when he said, "The measure of success for any institution of higher learning is the success that institution's graduates have after they complete their course of study. Today, we get to celebrate such a success."
Before an audience that included guests from Europe, Chicago, California, New York and Houston, Swearingen recounted her initial reluctance to attend her hometown college. Her decision was influenced by being named first runner-up in the Miss Alabama pageant.
"I wanted to be Miss Alabama. I knew that if I ever got on the stage in Atlantic City, I would be Miss America. But, it was not to be," Swearingen said. "I learned then that it is not what you do that are successes, it's the failures that make you what you are. It's the failure that I didn't win the Miss Alabama title that I really wanted that led me to this point. "I wanted to go to Vassar or Harvard or Yale. [Howard] was not exactly on my horizon. But, those schools did not want me, and I received a scholarship to attend Howard through the Miss Alabama pageant."
Swearingen pointed to then college President Harwell G. Davis, Academic Dean Percy Burns and Dean of Students Margaret Sizemore as influences who welcomed her and affirmed her.
"I never thought how important all of that was until later. It was those other, little avenues of opportunity outside class that gave me a touch of what life was to become," Swearingen said. "I have met the world, and I was comfortable doing that because my experiences at Howard College taught me a lot."
Samford's President Emeritus Thomas E. Corts recalled his first encounters with the Swearingens and realized early that "John knows very well how to let Bonnie take the lead."
Corts noted that colleges usually have three categories of alumni: loyalists, returnees and drop-outs. "We are grateful that Bonnie Bolding Swearingen has been a Samford loyalist from the start."
Corts said that in all her experiences, Swearingen "never forgot Samford, and the relationship has become even firmer through the years. We can be grateful for those who never forget their origins."
Samford President Andrew Westmoreland continued the day's theme. "We recognize that Bonnie Bolding Swearingen's is a life lived on a global stage, but Bonnie is a friend who does not forget her friends," Westmoreland said. "It is not just the past and present that connect Bonnie to Samford. Her heart is drawn to those things that will connect her for decades to come."
School of Performing Arts Dean Joseph Hopkins thanked Swearingen on behalf of students and faculty for "this gift that provides a first rate performance venue."
"Your inspiration for us is not just as one who is generous, but of one who is a performer," Hopkins said. "You recognize that life and performance are inseparable. You continue to teach us today that the stage is real life."
The ceremony included a performance by Swearingen's niece Mia Camp, a junior theatre major at Samford. Camp performed a monologue from the play "Sabrina Fair," in which Swearingen had played the lead role as a collegian.