Generations of accountants in the Nashville community and across the country were taught at the feet of a giant in business education — Axel W. Swang.
The Lipscomb community is mourning the loss of Swang, who died Tuesday, Jan. 8 at age 91. He was known for producing accountants who were not only prepared for their professions but were also young men and women of integrity.
Swang arrived on the Lipscomb campus in 1947 as a $200-a-month accounting instructor intending to stay only one year. Some 45 years later in 1992, Swang finally left the Lipscomb classroom, leaving behind an accounting program that had a reputation as one of the best in the region.
“There is no end to the roll call of accountants who learned their craft from Axel Swang and owe their careers to him,” said Turney Stevens, dean of Lipscomb’s College of Business. “He was a tough teacher, but he always had the best interest of his students at heart. There would not be a College of Business today were it not for his hard work and the personal sacrifices he made to build this program. He could have pursued any number of career opportunities. But, he chose to stay at Lipscomb where he turned out world-class accountants. He was a special man.”
A University of Alabama doctoral graduate, Swang earned his Certified Public Accountant (CPA) certification in 1953. He served as chair of the business department for most of his tenure and was instrumental in putting Lipscomb “on the map” for its accounting program.
“Axel Swang was an icon not only at Lipscomb but also in the accounting profession,” said Lipscomb President L. Randolph Lowry. “He laid a foundation—brick by brick—upon which our business program today has been built. The Swang Center on campus is home to our College of Business today. It rightfully carries his name and furthers his faithful spirit. Dr. Swang set the standard for Lipscomb reaching into the Nashville community with competent, ethical and moral graduates. His influence will continue to impact business students and the Nashville business community for generations to come.”
The accounting icon was known for telling his majors, “we will give you the technical skills, but you should always exhibit strong work ethic and Christian character, and treat others with dignity and respect.” These were the two ingredients that he believed formed the foundation of a successful business and personal life. He would also encourage his students to “provide a service, be industrious, be faithful to your employer and it will pay off.”
Lipscomb President Emeritus Harold Hazelip said Swang earned a reputation for producing quality accountants that were recognized “all over Nashville.”
“Dr. Swang and the faculty that he assembled built a sterling reputation for preparing students to sit for the Certified Public Accountant exam and for being successful in the business world,” he said. “His ethics and academics standards are unequaled. You can find ethics without quality and academics without ethics. It’s hard to find excellence in both in one person. Axel Swang had both.”
In addition to teaching, Swang became the first executive director of the Tennessee Society of CPAs (TSCPA) in 1954. He was also a member of the American Institute of CPAs and served as secretary-treasurer of the Southern States Conference of CPAs for 14 years.
“Dr. Swang led this organization while serving as a full-time educator at Lipscomb. TSCPA’s 9,000 members owe Dr. Swang a tremendous debt of gratitude for the solid foundation that he built for the CPA profession in Tennessee. He was widely known by CPAs throughout the state as a premier leader in accountancy and a man of the highest integrity,” said Brad Floyd, TSCPA chief executive officer.
“He put Lipscomb University in the forefront of institutions that trained accountants,” recalled Carl McKelvey, former vice president for administrative affairs. “Nashville knew about Lipscomb because of Dr. Swang. He was a good man and was part of the old Lipscomb that paved the way for where the university is today.”
The late Willard Collins spoke of the accounting icon’s influence on the university at a dinner honoring Swang Jan. 18, 1992, upon his retirement.
“Axel Swang came for a year. He stayed 45. Lipscomb has helped him some, but he’s given Lipscomb a lot more than we’ve ever given him,” he said. “No person in Lipscomb’s first century will cast a longer shadow than Axel Swang.”
Charles Frasier, professor of accounting at Lipscomb, served on faculty with Swang for more than three decades.
“We learn to love by being loved, to motivate by being motivated, and to influence by being influenced. Dr. Swang epitomized the ultimate leader of a principles-based life,” said Frasier. “He constantly encouraged, provoked, pushed, debated, threatened, but always loved. Success in business might be measured in many ways, but he desired success to be reflected by Christian character.
“He might throw a little chalk, or give points to attend a church service, but in the end, he wanted the best for each person, and understood motivations came in a variety of forms. Only rarely do we see true commitment in life, but Dr. Swang gave his very best on a daily basis to God, to his family, to Lipscomb, and to his profession.”
Perry Moore, professor of accounting at Lipscomb, was a student of Swang’s and later became a fellow faculty member. He said Swang greatly influenced his teaching methodology.
“Dr. Axel Swang shaped who I am as an accounting teacher,” said Moore.
“He taught me the importance of challenging tests. He taught me the importance of thorough preparation. He taught me the importance of asking tough questions to students in an attempt to get them to think about and defend their response. Even if your response was correct, he did not always act that way and forced you to be sure. I'll never forget the advice that Axel gave when teaching students about budgeting. He made the point that gifts to God had to be listed first—otherwise there would never be room for them.”
Bill Ingram, professor of business administration at Lipscomb, has known Swang for more than 40 years.
“Axel Swang has been my teacher, my mentor, my colleague, and my boss. He loved teaching and having a positive impact on the lives of his students. He expected students to take the material seriously and continuously challenged them to do their best,” he said. “He encouraged his colleagues in the college to be excellent and demand excellence. He was the epitome of a servant leader. I am a better person and teacher from having known him.”
To honor him, Swang’s former students raised more than $2 million to construct a building to house the business department. In the fall of 1984, the Axel Swang Center for Business Administration opened. In 2005, several faculty, alumni and friends honored Dr. Swang's late wife, Doris, by funding the Doris Swang Chapel that is a focal point in the university's Ezell Center.
Swang was very involved in campus life. Under his watch, the university founded the Delta Kappa chapter of Alpha Kappa Psi business fraternity. He also served as head basketball coach for the academy’s high school team before becoming head coach of the Bison baseball team for the 1952 season, during which he led the team to the Volunteer State Athletic Conference Western Division Championship. In 1997, he was inducted into the Lipscomb University Hall of Fame for his meritorious service to the athletic program.
In addition, Swang was a member of many scholastic societies and was the recipient of many awards, including the Lipscomb University Legends Award, the TSCPA Lifetime Achievement in Accounting Education, and the Alumnus of the Year from the College of Business at Harding University.
“I also learned the art of baseball heckling through observation of Axel at many a baseball game in his usual spot behind the opposing team's bench,” Moore recalled. “It was a favorite class on the 'fake' schedule produced by Lipscomb students many years ago.”
Outside of class ,Swang was referred to as “The Bear” by his students — partly out of respect and partly out of fear. But all agree that Swang was a unique teacher whose teachings — in and out of the classroom — had a profound influence on thousands.
“Seldom do you find the qualities of remarkable work ethic, devoted Christian, competent educator and dynamic, colorful personality so effectively balanced in a single individual as existed in Dr. Axel Swang,” said Farrell Gean (’72), Swang’s former student and colleague who taught business at Pepperdine University for more then 30 years.
“He did so much, for so many, for so many years. He lived his life at the foot of the cross. It was an honor to be his student. He provided me support and encouragement of every kind. He was a gift to this world. His earthen vessel was worn out, and it was time for the God he loved so much to take him up and in. I shall never stop feeling his love for me. What an inspiration to know a life that was so well lived.”
David Costello (’64), former president and CEO of the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy recently recalled his days as one of Swang’s students.
“Responsibility and accountability were assumed traits for Swang’s students and when he detected a lack thereof, much more than a piece of chalk or an eraser would be heading your way,” he said. “I can unreservedly state that I really didn’t appreciate Dr. Swang until after I’d graduated, began my professional career and endured many of the situations he’d talked about. Dr. Swang is that rare teacher, counselor, mentor and friend.”
Bruce Sullivan, former student and former partner-in-charge of the Nashville office of Ernst & Young, said that Swang was “an icon in the accounting profession. He became a master of teaching, observing, listening, advising and mentoring young, up-and-coming, business and accounting professionals.”
“As I look back, I recognize that Dr. Swang had the greatest impact on my career of any one individual. He took me aside more than once and gave me advice that, thankfully, helped me to better focus on the direction of my career. And I know that I am just one of the hundreds, if not thousands, that he helped develop, mold, grow and mature.”
“The greatest thing Axel Swang taught me was not only accounting, but also the practical application. When I look back it was the greatest training I could have ever experienced,” said Dolph Morrison (’60), a tax accountant for more than 40 years. “He helped me get my business career started by getting me a job with Price Waterhouse in Nashville during tax season.”
Former Bison basketball player Bernard Card (’78) said Swang was one of his favorite professors.
“Dr. Axel Swang kept us on our feet in accounting every day,” said Card, a business manager with Campbell Sales Company. “Oh yeah, he knew exactly where to throw the eraser in class, too.”
Bill Connelly, a CPA for more than 42 years, agrees.
“Doc Swang dedicated his life to developing a first-class and respected business and accounting program at Lipscomb,” he said. “He loved Lipscomb and his students—especially if you played baseball or basketball! I think his voice still echoes from the bleachers.”
Swang preached for over fifty years in congregations of the Churches of Christ both locally and in Kentucky. He served as an elder for the Paragon Mills Church of Christ for over twenty years.
Swang is survived by his wife of nine years, Dorothy H. Swang; sons, Dr. Ronald A. Swang (Susan) and Stephen A. Swang (Connie); four granddaughters, Laura Karkau (David), Beth Ewing (Michael), Breanna and Brette Swang; great grandchildren, Colton and Callie Karkau; sister-in-law, Carolyn Jackson; brother-in-law, Neil Cluck; many friends and former students of Lipscomb University. He was preceded in death by his wife of 58 years, Doris C. Swang.
Visitation was Thursday, Jan. 10 from 3-9 p.m. in the Doris C. Swang Chapel in the Ezell Center, located on the Lipscomb University campus, and Friday, Jan. 11 from 10-11 a.m. at Hillsboro Church of Christ with the funeral following at 11 a.m.
In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Axel W. Swang Business Scholarship Fund at Lipscomb University at give.lipscomb.edu.