MONTICELLO, Minn. – Five years after losing his wife to cancer, Jim Lawrence is keeping his promise.
Each winter morning he walks across his backyard and down a bank to the Mississippi River.
There he serves lunch to hundreds of trumpeter swans.
“She worried about them,” Jim says, launching into a story he often tells about Sheila, his wife, who died eight months after the cancer diagnosis.
She said, ‘Will you feed my swans?’ And I said ‘Of course.’”
Jim works faster than Sheila, tossing shelled corn along the shoreline from five gallon buckets.
Swans scoop it up in their bills, as Jim continues to feed in the midst of deafening cacophony. He’ll finish in less than an hour. Sheila could spend the whole day.
“I know she’s saying, ‘You’re still walking too fast when you feed.’ I say, ‘I know Sheila, but I’m just trying to feed. You wanted to talk to every one of them.’”
Sheila earned her “Swan Lady” moniker during the 25 years she fed the swans.
“Sheila used to get mail that said, ‘Swan Lady.’ No address, ‘Swan Lady’ - and it would get here.”
These days Jim occasionally gets mail addressed to “Swan Lady Man.”
He’s perfectly fine with it.
“That’s the most important part of the job, is to make sure the legacy continues,” he says.
It’s a legacy that extends beyond Monticello.
Once hunted out of existence, trumpeter swans were reintroduced in Minnesota starting in the 1960s.
The Minnesota DNR got involved in the 1980s and today estimates the state’s trumpeter swan population at 17,000.
Today, Jim gets his corn delivered weekly, 200 bushels at a time. He pays for it out of his pocket and with donations left in a drop box at a viewing platform in Monticello’s Swan Park, next to his home.
Each winter day at 10:30, small crowds gather to watch the feeding.
Jim goes about his work, always ready to answer questions - especially about Sheila.
“I want people to know about the Swan Lady, and what the Swan Lady did,” he says.