The Career of Charles Lee Swem

There’s a short bio of the great Mr. Swem tucked at the end of a volume entitled A Crossroads of Freedom: The 1912 Speeches of Woodrow Wilson, published in 1956. (The Symonds biography of Dr. Gregg informs us that Mr. Swem passed away that same year.)

THE CAREER OF CHARLES LEE SWEM

WOODROW WILSON chose wisely when he invited Charles Lee Swem to be his shorthand reporter during the presidential campaign of 1912. Although many persons might have hesitated to select a nineteen-year-old boy for such a key position, it will be apparent to the readers of this volume that Wilson’s confidence was well placed. It seems, therefore, fitting to include in this book a sketch of Swem’s life.

Swem was born in the little town of Groveville, New Jersey. In 1908, while a boy of fifteen, he began the study of Gregg shorthand in the night classes of Rider-Moore College at Trenton. After seven months of night school, he changed to a daytime schedule and finished the stenographic course in six more weeks. In 1909 the Gregg Publishing Company offered Swem a position in their New York office as stenographer and private secretary to John Robert Gregg, the originator of the Gregg system of shorthand.

Within a short time young Swem lived up to the high expectations of his teachers. In 1910 he won the championship contest for writers of the Gregg system, and the following year he entered the world’s championship contest held by the National Shorthand Reporters’ Association and won third place in the competition for the Adams trophy for accuracy. But more important was the fact that in this contest he established a new world’s record for “solid matter.” Lack of experience in the taking of testimony cut down his over-all average, but nevertheless his achievement was something of a sensation in view of the fact that he was competing with veteran court reporters of ten to twenty years’ experience.

Swem also in 1911 finished fourth in the world’s championship speed contest of the National Shorthand Reporters’ Association. These and other similar feats were exceptional for one of Swem’s age and experience, but more significant for his immediate future was a call to him from Henry Eckert Alexander, editor of the Trenton True American, who suddenly had to find a shorthand expert to report an address that Governor Woodrow Wilson was to deliver (October 1, 1911) before a group of Sunday school workers at Trenton. Swem gladly accepted the offer, and his work was so impressive that Wilson soon after his nomination at Baltimore invited him to become his campaign reporter.

The campaign of 1912 was the beginning of an exciting period for Swem, but it was also a great challenge. To report accurately under the most trying conditions was the most important qualification. It was not unusual for him to write in a standing position, and often he was in danger of being cut off from Wilson by the press of enthusiastic admirers. He met this grueling test with great ingenuity and alertness, reporting nearly all of the more than one hundred extemporaneous speeches Wilson delivered during the campaign.

After the election Swem and his wife, formerly Miss Daisy Bunting of Trenton, accompanied Governor and Mrs. Wilson on a trip to the island of Bermuda. It was hardly the honeymoon vacation that some newsmen then pictured it, for Swem had been married in April of 1912 and he helped Wilson answer the avalanche of correspondence that overwhelms a President-Elect.

After Wilson’s inauguration, in March of 1913, Swem quite naturally became his official stenographer. Actually he became more than that; he also acted as a confidential secretary to the President, a fact often overlooked by historians. He also reported the President’s speeches, and he recalls that, with the possible exception of two or three, he reported all of the major addresses Wilson delivered between the opening of the 1912 campaign and the close of his second administration. For four months of 1918 he served in the army, being discharged with the coming of the armistice.

Part of Swem’s routine was to see the Chief Executive at the beginning of each working day. It is quite likely, therefore, that he saw more of the President than any other person outside of Wilson’s immediate family. As shorthand reporter, he was always assured of a ringside seat whenever the President spoke publicly. From this favored position he saw Wilson in such unforgettable roles as the advocate before Congress of domestic reforms, as the leader of a mighty nation at war, as the champion before the world of a just peace, and as the crusader for the League of Nations on the western speaking tour that ended in the President’s tragic collapse.

After Wilson left the Presidency in 1921, Swem again became associated with the Gregg Publishing Company. During the next seven years he was editor of The Gregg Writer and The American Shorthand Teacher and author of texts on shorthand and shorthand reporting. But he also found time in 1923 to compete again in contests of the National Shorthand Reporters’ Association. This time he won the world’s championship and in so doing established a new record for the taking of solid matter. The following year he retained his world’s championship.

In 1928 Charles Swem became the Official Shorthand Reporter of the Supreme Court of New York. He still holds that position today, highly regarded by members of his craft. He has continued to write books on shorthand, one of the most interesting of which is The Technique of Campaign Reporting.

Historians have sometimes been negligent in recognizing the contributions of those men who have devoted their lives to keeping the record straight. Certainly Charles Lee Swem is one of these.

(by Joel for
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