Had John Swoboda been born during an earlier century, he would have been an explorer, said Jere Swoboda, 80, his wife of 59 years.
“He loved to explore,” his wife said. “We would strike out on roads to see where they led and that was before GPS, so we would not know where we would end up.”
Swoboda, a Victoria native who owned Victoria Machine Works, died May 19 at the age of 84 in Bryan where they moved a few years ago to be near family.
“I was very blessed, I have to say. He was a good Christian, ethical man, and a good father and grandfather,” Jere Swoboda said. “I lost my husband and my best friend, but I’m thankful for the almost 60 years I had him.”
The Swobodas met on a blind date when she was attending Victoria College and he was enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin where he earned a degree in mechanical engineering. While it was not love at first sight, the two made their way to a New Year’s Eve party together where they discovered they had a lot in common. The Swobodas eventually married and had two children and six grandchildren.
Swoboda’s father was a Czech immigrant, so he and his five siblings were the first generation born in the U.S. Swoboda means freedom in Czech. The skills used by his parents to learn the language and find their way in a new country translated to Swoboda. He and his brother Norman Swoboda built their father’s business, Victoria Machine Works, which started in 1933, from a repair shop into an engineering company that designed and built exotic equipment for clients around the world. John Swoboda started working for the company as a teenager, and by 1963, he was working there full time.
“If you want it, you have to work for it,” said Jere Swoboda of the lesson her husband learned growing up.
Through the years, Victoria Machine Works’ complex engineering projects included mooring systems to hold platforms in place; subsea diving systems that enabled divers to descend 1,500 feet; the Navy Sealab, which allowed divers to conduct research underwater for several days at a time; another subsea habitat called Aquarius that still operates off the coast of Florida; a system for taking wounded soldiers safely from the landing craft to hospital ships, the USNS Comfort and the USNS Mercy; a safer helicopter refueling system; and diamond mining equipment that pulled diamonds off the ocean floor in Cape Town, South Africa, among numerous others.
One of Swoboda’s legacies is his reputation as a person of integrity who was respected for the way he ran his business, his widow said.
“He did not cut corners in business, which could have been dangerous or life-threatening with some products, and he was very supportive of his employees and their families. They were like his own family,” she said.
Terry Boatman, of Spicewood, worked for Swoboda from 1970 to 1978, and called him a “good people person, a good manager and a really good engineer,” though Swoboda did not have much of a chance to practice engineering because he stayed busy running the company.
“To have a really good manager and engineer in one person is rare,” Boatman said.
Swoboda was quick to develop friends, which was very important in bringing in customers, Boatman continued. He entertained the customers and made decisions about final pricing on bids, and he was very well liked.
Travis Fromme, who worked for Swoboda at Victoria Machine Works from 1981 to 1995, said Swoboda would likely want to be remembered as a good businessman whose family came first. Swoboda served as the brains behind the company. He managed the business side but had a hand in every aspect of the operations.
“His greatest legacy is all the people he trained and taught who worked at Victoria Machine Works through the years. Even if they did not learn directly from him, they learned from the projects we did, and we learned some amazing engineering things that we could not learn anywhere else,” Fromme said. “We usually did big equipment that no one else could do, would do or even thought about doing.”
Swoboda retired in 1995, and the family closed the business in 2003.
Swoboda worked 16-hour days, so if he had one regret, it would probably be the time his work took away from his children, his widow said. Eventually, the Swobodas purchased a boat and acreage outside Victoria to spend more family time together.
“You can only divide yourself into so many segments,” she said. “It’s not the quantity but the quality of time spent together. He loved his grandchildren, seeing some of the things he missed with his own kids.”
Three of Swoboda’s four grandsons are going into engineering, and they say that came from their grandfather, Jere Swoboda said.
“He loved being a grandpa, and his grandkids called him ‘Da,’” said Jay Swoboda, John Swoboda’s son. “He was a great grandfather — always doing stuff with them and helping them build stuff.”
Jay Swoboda said many people likely considered his father imposing at 6-feet, 6-inches tall with a deep voice. He continued that his father’s greatest legacy is the good he brought out in so many people.
“He helped and pushed people to be the best they could be and encouraged them to exceed their own expectations,” Jay Swoboda said. “He could push hard but he was a big teddy bear deep down. He wanted to see people recognize all their potential. He had a big love for helping people.”
Charles Wartsbaugh served as a financial advisor to Swoboda for about 15 years. He said Swoboda was a passionate man who thought a job worth doing was a job worth doing right the first time.
“He had very high expectations, not only of those who did things for him, but of himself,” Wartsbaugh said. “He was very detail oriented. As an engineer, if he was off a fraction of a measurement, it could be the difference between it working and having a disaster.”
Swoboda was active in his church and his community as well.
“He had a strong faith and he imparted it to his family and anybody he could share it with,” his son said. “Faith played a huge part in all of our lives.”
Swoboda served as a deacon and elder at First Presbyterian Church until he and his wife attended First English Lutheran Church later in life. He served on the Victoria Planning Commission, Victoria Sales Tax Development Corporation and the Victoria Economic Development Corporation, among other organizations. He was an enthusiastic member of the Northside Rotary Club as well. He was a Shriner and Freemason. He mentored students in schools as well as peers in business. He was a volunteer chaplain at Citizens Medical Center where he encouraged fellow cancer patients.
“I will remember his acts in Rotary to make the world a better place — that’s the legacy I will always remember him for,” said Donald Jirkovsky, who got to know Swoboda well through Rotary in 2013. “He was a fascinating man, inspirational. He was always reading, studying and wanting to get better. He believed in giving back to the community, and that will stick with me the rest of my life.”