Bobbi Renae Swan

September 15, 1930December 26, 2018

Bobbi Renae Swan 1930-2018 It is increasingly acceptable in this era of social media to use the pronoun “they” to identify a person. For Facebook users, it is largely a matter of convenience. In the case of Bobbi Renae Swan, it might be justifiable for matters of accuracy, for her life transitioned not only from male to female but also through countless roles, many cloaked in professional and personal secrecy essential for a groundbreaking career that helped launch what today is a multibillion-dollar drone industry. Bobbi died Dec. 26, 2018, in Novi, Mich., of complications from pneumonia. She was 88. During this life, some knew Bobbi as a son, a husband, a father, an uncle, and a grandparent. In professional life, some knew her as a driven, award-winning engineer who earned the nickname “Mr. Drone” for pioneering, top-secret work during the Vietnam war, the Yom Kippur War, and tenuous times in Iraq. In 1978 some knew her at the bottom of a battle with alcoholism that started her on 40 years of sobriety and recovery. Later, some knew her in the deeply closeted world of the transvestite lifestyle. And for the past 16 years some knew her officially and openly as Bobbi Swan, after gender reassignment surgery at age 72. “I think people talk in either/or terms, right? Before transition and after,” Bobbi said to the authors of “To Survive on This Shore,” a 2018 book that tells the stories of older transgender and gender variant people. “But to me, it’s really development. I’m proud of both lives. I’m proud of both mes, if you see what I’m saying. And I feel it has been a remarkable thing to have happened to a person.” Bobbi was born in 1930 as Robert Rowland Schwanhausser in Buffalo, N.Y. He was the second son to Edwin J. and Helen R. Schwanhausser, 10 years younger than his brother, George. As a teenager and an Eagle Scout, “Bob” was fascinated with flight. That set him on a path to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s aeronautical engineering program, where he joined the Theta Delta Chi fraternity, edited and managed the Voo Doo humor magazine, and was commissioned as a lieutenant through the Air Force ROTC program. Upon graduation in 1952, he was assigned to work on a Q-2 Firebee target drone project in New Mexico. That assignment initiated a decades-long relationship with Ryan Aeronautical Co. of San Diego, which was a leader in the development of drones. It was the time of the Cold War and the Cuban missile crisis, when Russia shot down and captured U-2 pilot Gary Powers and was building missile bases in Cuba, just miles from the United States. On the face of it, the need was obvious. The military needed to take surveillance photographs without risking the lives of pilots. But this was a time when the pilots’ “air jockey” culture resisted the idea of pilotless vehicles, and the Defense Department shut doors on experimental programs time and again. It was against this backdrop that Bob was put in charge of a nine-person team at a top-secret “skunk works” in a small San Diego warehouse to develop a reconnaissance drone in 1960. Together, Bob, his teams, and Ryan overcame engineering setbacks and bureaucratic resistance to develop 36 types of drones and employ 2,500. The company’s success translated into steady promotions, with Bob rising to executive vice president of international programs. In 1971, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics honored Bob with its Outstanding Contribution to Aerospace award. The Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems gave him its Pioneer award in 1984. He also became a central protagonist in “Lightning Bugs and Other Reconnaissance Drones: The Can-Do Story of Ryan’s Unmanned ‘Spy Planes’” by William Wagner, and “Fireflies and other UAVs” by William Wagner and William P. Sloan. “My work on his team at Ryan pioneering the use of unmanned vehicles for the Air Force was a highlight of my career,” longtime friend and associate Gene Timmons wrote in a condolence note. “The leadership, innovation and drive your father gave to the success of the drone operations during the Vietnam era certainly set the stage for the widespread use of these vehicles in our military operations today.” Bob’s alcoholism ended this heady chapter, however. He was forced out at what was then known as Teledyne Ryan in 1974, tried to start a company with a longtime friend and mentor, then took a job in 1977 with All American Engineering in Wilmington, DE. In 1978, he was divorced from Mary Lea Hunter, his wife of 25 years and the mother of his two sons. He nearly died of an overdose of alcohol and lithium. Hitting bottom started Bob on the road to sobriety and to resurrecting his career. In 1979, he married Beverly Bohn Allemann, whom he had met in rehab. He rejoined Teledyne Ryan in San Diego (1979-1982), was promoted to Teledyne Brown Engineering in Huntsville, Ala. (1982-1983), and was appointed president of Teledyne CAE in Toledo, Ohio, in 1983. Under his leadership, CAE’s profitability strengthened as it put one engine into full development and two into full-scale development contracts, and it shed production costs by opening a manufacturing plant in Gainesville, Ga., that generated $45 million in sales. In 1987, Ohio Citizens Bank appointed him to its board, and the National Management Association gave him its Gold Knight Management award. It was while he was living alone in Delaware, though, that another secretive side of Bob’s life began taking shape. He delved into cross-dressing and wrote for publications in this guarded world. His second marriage ended when Allemann discovered his secret. Following his presidency at CAE, Bob moved to Grand Forks, N.D., and served as vice president and general manager of Sioux Manufacturing Corp. Bob briefly married a third wife who owned a business that catered to cross-dressers, and he retired to live in Clinton Township, a suburb of Detroit. Retired and unmarried, Bob weighed what to do next. He decided to act on long-closeted feelings that he was a woman trapped in a man’s body. After three years of hormone therapy and living as a woman, at the age of 72 he flew to Thailand for gender reassignment surgery in 2003. When a San Diego Union-Tribune reporter asked in 2007 why she had not taken this step earlier, Bobbi said, “Priorities. My priorities were airplanes and getting established in the airplane business. Obviously, that was a man's business.” In a 2009 column in TG Forum, Bobbi painted a picture of continual transition into life as a woman. She wrote about dressing with femininity “as my mother would have insisted in her day and times,” developing friendships with a circle of women friends, welcoming the curiosity of doctors and nurses, and of coming out to his cousin Audrey Peters, a longtime actress in soap operas “Love of Life” and “Guiding Light.” “We had not seen each other for years, and Audrey first asked if I was in the Witness Protection Program,” Bobbi wrote. “She knew a lot of my background and spooky travel.” Upon learning of Bobbi’s death, Peters spoke of her as being a “little sister.” In an interview for “To Survive on This Shore,” Bobbi said, “I’m grateful. You can’t just become a woman with a knife or a pill or anything like that. It takes a whole combination in a sequence, in a formation. You’ve got this time span, it’s a learning experience, it’s a little bit of everything.” Bobbi is survived by her two sons in California, Robert H. (and Sherryl) Schwanhausser of Escondido and Mark P. (and Karen) Schwanhausser of Pleasanton, five grandchildren, his cousin Audrey Peters of Los Angeles, and nephew Richard (and Carolyn) Schwanhausser of Roanoke, Va. Bobbi requested that her cremains be buried at her parent’s plot at Fairview Cemetery in Westfield, N.J., with “Robert 1930-2018” added to the headstone bearing the first names of his parents, brother, and three extended family members. In lieu of flowers, please consider a donation to an organization that supports transgender rights, such as National Center for Transgender Equality, GLAD, or Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund. ARTICLE LINKS “To Survive on This Shore” in New York Times, 2018: San Diego Union-Tribune, 2007: TG Forum National Center for Transgender Equality GLAD Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund


  • Interment

Bobbi Renae Swan

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