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South Dakota Mines receives $4 million donation, its largest ever

Karen Swindler
South Dakota Mines
Karen Swindler

South Dakota Mines celebrated three historic events during an emotional ceremony celebrating a beloved alumna and $4 million gift in her honor.

The gift is the Rapid City university's largest donation ever.

The donation came from the family of alumna Karen Swindler, who was 52 when she died in a 2018 car accident on her way back from a Mines alumni association meeting.

Karen was "a young woman coming from Redfield, South Dakota, comes to the School of Mines, gets a chemical engineering degree, and then has an awesome career, unbelievable career, breaking whatever glass ceilings there were," said Robb Winter, a Mines professor and friend of Karen.

In honor of the donation, Mines renamed its Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering after Karen.

It's the first Mines department to be named after anyone. The school also says it's the first time any American university has named its chemical and biological engineering department after a woman.

Karen was a trailblazer in her field, said her husband Lee Swindler.

"All manufacturing, but especially chemical and refining, I mean it's a man's world, there's no doubt," Lee said. "So I feel like she had to be better than the competing male candidate to succeed in the role she was in."

Karen Swindler 1
Arielle Zionts
Lee Swindler speaks about his late wife Karen at a ceremony celebrating his donation and the renaming of a department after his wife.

Lee and others said they hope the new department name will inspire other women to enter the chemical engineering field.

But Karen didn't only care about her career.

"We raised four wonderful kids along the way, she volunteered a lot at nonprofits and church, and was a very giving individual to others — and her faith drove a lot of that," Lee said.

Lee said he and his family made the donation to honor Karen and give back to the school where they met and found their careers. He said he appreciates that Mines is accessible for an engineering school, not an elite institution.

The donation will serve as an endowment for the department, according to Mines President Jim Rankin. The money will be used for scholarships, research and other projects.

Karen Swindler 3
Arielle Zionts
This new sign recognizing the renamed Karen M. Swindler Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering

Karen, the youngest of 11 siblings, grew up on a family farm in Redfield where she learned the value of hard work, Lee said.

She met her husband at Mines, where she graduated in 1988 with a degree in chemical engineering.

Karen began her career at Exxon where she won three awards for improving performance in the utilities area and for reducing chemical costs by 55%.

In 1993, Karen moved to LyondellBasell, the third largest independent chemical company in the world. She served in multiple leadership positions before becoming part of the corporate team.

Karen was one of the only women in charge of manufacturing for an S&P Fortune 500 company.

She retired in 2014 to focus on volunteer work, which focused on her church and Mines. She also spent time installing clean water systems, implementing sustainable agriculture and helping orphanages in Latin America, according to her obituary.

Karen Swindler 4
Arielle Zionts
This plaque is displayed outside the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering.

Karen recruited Mines students, spoke to classes and organizations, and served on the Chemical Engineering Advisory Board and Alumni Association Board of Directors. The university gave her a posthumous honorary doctorate.

Lee said Karen convinced LyondellBasell to recruit at Mines. Once, he recalled with a laugh, Karen forwarded 26 intern candidates to a HR worker, who accidentally offered positions to every student.