Obituary: Richard C. Swenson Feb. 3, 1934 – Jan. 27, 2023

Richard Charles Swenson, of Los Alamos, New Mexico, passed away peacefully on Friday, January 27, 2023, after a long battle following a stroke. He was a week short of his 89th birthday. 

Richard was born on February 3, 1934, in Grand Forks, North Dakota, to John and Elenor (Anderson) Swenson. He attended a one-room country school with one teacher and 9 students (grades 1-8). He went on to an Agricultural High School designed for children of farmers to attend school only 6 months out of a year with very limited academic education. 

After high school, Richard worked on his father’s farm for two years before joining the Navy, where he became a Navy SEAL (formerly Underwater Demolition Team). After serving, he used the GI Bill to enroll in college at the University of North Dakota (UND). He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in physics and mathematics and later earned a Master of Science degree in nuclear physics, also at UND, which led him to a 35-year career in nuclear reactor physics and underwater acoustics research. 

Richard was very grateful to be born to this country where he could enjoy its freedom. He fiercely defended the country during the Cold War era by his service as Navy SEAL and by using his technological expertise in anti-submarines warfare.  

After meeting Vivien (Chen) in an airplane and a 7-year courtship, Richard honored her culture by asking her parents for their daughter’s hand in marriage.  They were married in 1992 in New Orleans. During their marriage, Richard accompanied Vivien and attended many of her international conferences and university functions to show his appreciation of her cancer research. He also drove her throughout Louisiana to many presentations she gave in the evening and was very supportive of her work.  Richard jokingly introduced himself to Vivien’s colleagues as “Dr. Chen’s chauffeur and luggage handler.”  After Vivien retired, they moved to Los Alamos where he could interact with scientists and veterans who served the country during the critical decades of the Cold War.

Throughout his career, Richard received numerous recognitions and awards, including the prestigious Solberg Award from the American Society of Naval Engineers. He also held many technology patents from his time working at various national naval research laboratories.

Although Richard was heavily involved in the world of science and technology, he was also strongly connected to nature. After retirement, he dedicated himself to restoring 60+ John Deere tractors. In 2000, he began to create sculptures of animals by welding together scraps of farming machinery and left-over tractor parts, thus connecting the natural world and the industrial world. Richard loved creating whimsical sculptures which still bring joy and smile to people.

Richard’s work is on public display and also held in private collections around town in Los Alamos and White Rock. A special group appears on top of the mailboxes along Los Pueblos Street. More can be found in private, corporate, and museum collections in New Orleans, LA and Carlsbad, NM.  

Though not a regular church goer, Richard had strong faith and experienced God in his way. As a man with logical reasoning and scientific mind, he struggled with faith but ultimately acknowledged God as the almighty creator as he observed the magnificent universe that is beyond human comprehension and understanding and enjoyed the gorgeous sunrise and sunset and the beautiful songs of birds of His creation. Richard accepted the God revealed in Jesus and made a decision to follow Him. He was grateful for God’s protection during his many dangerous missions as a SEAL. He loved God and others through concrete actions and with moral integrity, loyal service and reasoned faith anchored in a search for truth and justice. 

Despite his serious and sometimes grumpy expression, Richard had a big heart, always ready to help those in need and was very generous with his time and resources. Richard was a loving and caring husband and father, a courageous Navy SEAL, a loyal patriot who sacrificed for his country, and a generous contributor to his community. He will be greatly missed by all who knew him and whose lives he touched. 

Richard is preceded in death by his father, John, his mother, Elenor, and his brother, Robert. He is survived by his wife of 30 years, Vivien, his son, John, his sister, Collette, and several nephews and a niece as well as many brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law.  

The family of Richard Swenson appreciates the dedication of his caregivers, Louie Pescador, Jacob Apodaca, Omar Jaramillo, and Holly Vigil who cared for him to the end and the compassion of AmberCare Hospice and their nurse, Emily Skelton, who stayed with him until his last breath.  

The family has entrusted their loved one to Rivera Family Funeral Home & Crematory ( Please visit the website to give condolences, share stories, or add pictures for the family to enjoy. 

A memorial service/celebration of life will be held at 10:30 am on Saturday, March 18 at the United Church of Los Alamos, located at 2525 Canyon Road, Los Alamos, followed by a reception. A Zoom link will be available. A military ceremony will be observed Friday, March 17, at the National Cemetery, Santa Fe. 

Donations in his memory can be made to J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Committee, (Richard Swenson Memorial Scholarship); New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, (Vivien Chen New Testament PhD Scholarship); or a charity organization of your choice.