William “Bill” Swinney would rather not know what’s going to happen in the next 15 minutes. “Life’s an adventure, and it’s best lived that way,” the 99-year-old entrepreneur and World War II veteran said during an interview at his Texas ranch.
Nearly 10 decades of his stories—he’ll turn 100 in July—bear that out.
He survived the Second World War on a B-24 Liberator, flying on missions over Japanese-occupied China as a waist gunner operating a mounted .50-caliber Browning machine gun. After the war, he attended the University of Mississippi before marrying and launching into a career, first as a salesman, then a beverage distributorship owner, then as an entrepreneur in home construction, and later, real estate.
Along the way, he earned a pilot’s license and had his share of adventurous landings, including one that he successfully pulled off for the sheer challenge of it—on the hard, wet sand along the beach of South Padre Island, Texas.
“Tell me I couldn’t do something, and I was ready to prove you wrong.”
He was a weightlifter and fitness enthusiast long before it was trendy. He finally stopped water skiing—at age 90.
Bill and his wife of 33 years, Brenda, believe in making the most of each day. “If it can be done today, then let’s do it today,” Bill said. Each night he makes a list of the things he aims to accomplish the next day.
In luring Brenda, Bill even used the a-word—adventure. Brenda will attest that their marriage has been just that, in a good way.
The Swinneys’ ambitious life includes raising their great-granddaughter, 7-year-old Scarlett, whom they legally adopted. Brenda, who is 22 years younger than Bill, beams when talking about Scarlett, who attends a nearby Christian school. Scarlett spends many evenings with Bill as they ride around the ranch on his Kubota ATV checking on their cattle and their 19 chickens. They’ve had custody of her since she was 8 months old.
The Swinneys have an assistant, Rebecca Price, who helps them with their business affairs and also helps with Scarlett.
“Having Scarlett around gives me a lot more life, actually, a lot of energy,” said Brenda, who spent decades helping direct women’s missionary auxiliaries for her Baptist denomination.
Bill added with a grin, “It adds to my hope for 10 or 15 years of life. I figure if I have responsibility, I’ve got to hang around.”
Bill’s love of adventure is evidenced by three hardbound photo books he’s compiled of his storied life, which began in 1923 in the central Texas town of Rogers.
“My family moved around a lot”—at least eight times before he graduated from high school—Bill said. It was the Great Depression, and the family, like many others, went where the work was, all around Texas, and twice to Mississippi.
After high school, Bill enrolled at Mississippi College, a Baptist school in Clinton. One Sunday morning in 1941, around 11 a.m., he was walking across campus to the chapel when he heard news that America had been attacked at Pearl Harbor. Bill said his first thought was, This is bad. We’re going to have to go to war to keep our freedom.
“Soon after that, most of the men at the college quit and joined the service,” he recalled.
He was still 17, and his mother wouldn’t sign for him to enlist. Instead, he went as a laborer to help rebuild Hawaii. When he turned 18, he came straight home, enlisting in the Army Air Corps and ending up on that B-24 Liberator after trying and failing several physicals in hopes of becoming a pilot.
He said he didn’t pray out loud much on those missions, “but I’ve always been a prayerful person.”
Growing up, he would accompany his mother to church even though his dad never attended. One Sunday when he was 16, inside a Baptist church in rural Mississippi, he responded to the invitation, telling the preacher he was ready to commit his life to the Lord. He was baptized in a muddy stream near the church.
But, he said, he lacked any real discipleship until much later, when he met Brenda.
By the early 1980s, with oil states like Texas struggling economically, Bill cut his losses in the construction business. His first marriage also ended around that time. But by 1990, God had used those hard knocks to get his attention. Seeking companionship, he was set on a particular type of woman.
The newspaper ad went like this: “Wanted: Mature Christian woman, age 35 to 45. Love of the outdoors is a plus. Entrepreneurial spirit. Hurry! We’re headed for the great adventure.”
Brenda was scanning the classifieds for a job, not a man. But after she showed Bill’s ad to friends, they told her she should answer him. “What do you have to lose?” they asked. “A quarter for a postage stamp?”
Bill and Brenda had their first date on Feb. 14, 1990. Two months later—on April 14—they married.
“She has been a great influence for me,” he said. After meeting her, he became a Bible reader, became active in church again and rediscovered business success, this time buying real estate and turning land into construction-ready plots while carrying the note for his buyers.
That knack for business has allowed the Swinneys to give generously to several Christian ministries, including the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
“I appreciate how [BGEA] is reaching the godless millions—teaching them how to follow the Lord,” Bill said. “Franklin Graham goes into places where it’s not popular or easy. But this life is not a popularity contest.” ©2023 BGEA
Photo: ©2023 Allison Edmon Photography