Dan Hust | Democrat
Noel van Swol was in his element while marching with fellow pro-drillers in Albany on Monday just hours before he died in a car crash near North Branch.
Well-known fighter and drilling advocate recalled
Story by Dan Hust
LONG EDDY Hero to some, devil to others, Long Eddy’s Noel van Swol was no stranger to controversy.
In fact, he relished it.
When the federal government arrived in the Delaware River valley with a proposal to make it part of the National Park Service system, he fought over maintaining private property rights.
When a superintendent of the former Delaware Valley Central School in Callicoon proclaimed to have a doctorate degree, van Swol (himself an educator) uncovered a nationwide diploma mill scandal.
When the Sullivan West school merger got under way, he became a thorn in the side of officials and residents over financial and building issues then got elected to the district’s board, a post he held until his death.
And when the prospect of gas drilling came to town, he became a fearsome, sometimes hated force against both drilling companies (with one of whom he successfully broke a drilling lease) and those against drilling.
“He was a fighter,” said Bill Graby of Callicoon, who as co-founder with van Swol of the pro-leasing Sullivan-Delaware Property Owners Association talked with him virtually every day for the past four years.
“He could stand up in front of 100 people and fight for what he believed in even if the other 99 people were booing him.”
That happened several times, yet the disagreement only seemed to spur him on. In fact, it often appeared van Swol had anticipated the heated response to his sometimes inflammatory rhetoric, egging on the opposition just to see how they’d react.
Mark Ruffalo, the Callicoon resident who’s as famous for standing against fracking as he is for playing the Hulk in “The Avengers,” saw it firsthand.
“I only know him by being called a couple names by him in a parking lot after a town meeting in Cochecton,” Ruffalo recalled. “He has said some pretty bad things about me in the press.
“That being said,” he added, “I mean no one harm, and I know there must be a lot of people out there who cared for him. Even though this fight has gotten ugly at times and people can say some pretty hard things about each other, the fact of the matter remains we are all human, and our needs and wants from life are not as vastly different as some would have us believe.”
That’s actually a message van Swol himself espoused.
“I want everybody to understand that responsible environmentalists and property owners have no problem getting along,” he told the Democrat in a September 2008 gas drilling interview. “They both want the same thing.”
Graby said many folks didn’t realize that van Swol could be accommodating, compassionate even change his mind.
“If you had your facts and could prove him wrong,” he remarked from personal experience, “he would admit he was wrong.”
Van Swol was an exceedingly private man, many not knowing he lived with and cared for his now-99-year-old mother, Hildegard, and even fewer realizing he had battled diabetes for 40 years.
“He was a ‘brittle’ diabetic,” brother Eric van Swol explained, subject to huge swings in blood glucose levels and the resulting diabetic comas (which the family believes contributed to his death in Monday’s car crash).
He could be perceived as brittle in some of his arguments, as well, but his brother and others said that was actually confidence radiating from a well-researched position.
“He always did his homework,” affirmed former Sullivan West Superintendent Ken Hilton, who fondly remembered the legal tablet whose yellow pages van Swol would slowly fill with notes and thoughts in the course of a school board meeting.
“As Ronald Reagan would say, ‘Trust, but verify’,” Eric van Swol explained of his brother’s approach. “... Most issues I think he was right about.”
Even if people continued to disagree with him, “you had to respect the fact Noel would fight for his beliefs,” said Graby.
Most agreed that van Swol could be intense in his battles, even arrogant, sometimes alienating both opponents and supporters with divisive words like “trust-fund babies.”
But those who dug deeper, who got to know the man and his reasons, discovered he could be warm, friendly and on items of agreement a passionate ally.
“I found him a thoughtful, intelligent, balanced, sensible man whom I could talk with easily on the big issues,” Hilton recalled of five years spent working with van Swol on the SW Board.
“He and I did not agree at all on things like politics and fracking, but we were always, always able to put aside the things we disagreed on,” Hilton continued. “... I found him a constructive supporter of almost everything I proposed.”
Albeit with an eye to the taxpayer as much as the student.
“More than most board members, he had a keen understanding of that dynamic, conflicting balance between [offering a good education] and the fiscal constraints on taxpayers,” Hilton explained.
“He understood public service is in many ways a weighing of good versus good, not good versus bad. ... I hope he will be remembered as a friend of the school district’s.”
Van Swol’s legacy, however, will likely include his strong disagreements with the district, including its formation.
“I think he was very proud of his opposition to the merger at Sullivan West,” brother Eric acknowledged. “And he was always the Delaware Valley [school] critic. His concern was always to keep the real estate taxes low.”
But he also fought against those who did nothing.
“He loved to rail against the complacency and pompousness of local politicians,” Eric said.
His last day, in fact, was spent in Albany, participating in a pro-fracking rally that marched on the State Capitol to demand Gov. Andrew Cuomo move drilling forward in the state.
“There are many people throughout the Southern Tier who feel Gov. Cuomo procrastinated and is totally ignoring the needs of upstate New York,” Noel told the Democrat in his final interview, just hours before his death. “I think he is afraid of the environmental movement, and he doesn’t realize there are thousands more people in upstate New York who support it than oppose it.”
Those alone are fighting words, but in characteristic fashion, van Swol took it one searing step further.
“Sullivan County has a long history of stopping anything that represents progress,” he argued, referring to recently enacted town-level bans on drilling, “and this is one time the liberal establishment in Sullivan County aren’t going to get away with it!”
Graby, who marched with van Swol on Monday, admitted he could overstep civil discourse boundaries at times, but he pointed out that van Swol also went after the gas companies themselves.
“The battle actually started when he leased his property [for gas drilling] for $100 an acre and found out his neighbors had leased for $500 an acre,” Graby recalled. “Noel was able to break his contract.”
Love him or hate him, van Swol never shrank from battle.
“I learned the value of fighting for what you believe in by knowing him for the past four years,” Graby stated. “I will carry on, yes I will ... but the loss is still there.”
Van Swol died after crashing off road
NORTH BRANCH Long Eddy resident and longtime community activist Noel van Swol unexpectedly died Monday in a car crash.
The 70-year-old was en route home from a pro-gas drilling rally in Albany and ran his vehicle off County Route 128 around 4:30 p.m., according to the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office.
Though van Swol had dealt with diabetes for much of his life, Undersheriff Eric Chaboty and investigating officer Kyle Muthig said Wednesday that an autopsy could not confirm initial reports that van Swol’s crash was caused by a diabetic coma.
But they acknowledged the possibility, as van Swol was not known for driving fast, yet the crash scene indicated his 2007 Jeep Grand Cherokee left the road at an accelerated rate.
“Speed was definitely a factor,” said Chaboty.
Due to the wet road and lack of skid marks, Muthig said van Swol’s speed could not be accurately determined, but he was going fast enough to fly off a hairpin curve above North Branch, hit a ditch, veer 157 feet up a driveway and smash into a tree with such force that it crumpled the roof and spun the Jeep 180 degrees.
Muthig said van Swol was not alive when emergency responders reached him, having suffered a skull fracture and broken ribs which punctured his lungs.
Coroner Tom Warren pronounced him dead about an hour after the accident, said Muthig.
The Sheriff’s Office, State Police, the Jeffersonville First Aid Squad, and the Jeff and North Branch fire departments responded