The “Swit” Life: Lessons Learned From TV Icon Loretta Swit

For all us kids of the 80’s and 90’s, the cherished stay-home-with-sniffles days, were marked by game shows – those daytime TV treasures that school hours robbed of you before the invention of the DVR.  The reassuring presence of sitcom stars and comedians, like old friends, was as effective and soothing a lozenge as any medicine.  What may have gone unnoticed, however, from that Nyquil/Kool-Aid haze, was the prowess with which some celebrities, notably Loretta Swit, were able to assist contestants in earning winnings.  That’s right, Hot Lips Houlihan herself not only redefined the image of a woman in uniform, but also most likely helped many a Valley housewife fund a college education – two feats of equal importance.

“I was told that I held the world’s record for giving the most money to contestants on the Pyramid Show.  You play for their money. You’re trying to help them win.  I enjoyed it.”

Curious it may seem that this little known footnote in a career honored with the prestigious Icon Award at this year’s Oscars, is what floats to the top of my thoughts from a thoroughly enjoyable phone chat with Ms. Swit.  However, I find this gem of trivia to be accurately symbolic of a professional vocation that’s spanned over 5 decades, and has mirrored in philanthropy what it has achieved in entertainment. 

Fittingly, the role of a nurse – a giver, a caretaker, a nurturer – is what made a household name of the actress who has championed humane rights for animals, respect for veterans, and art of substance and value.  While MASH has ensured that Hot Lips Houlihan will forever be etched into our pop culture vernacular, the humanitarian efforts of Loretta Swit have forged their own path of identity.  Her pride in inspiring generations of future nurses, equals the joy in her membership to that iconic family of the 4077 – recently reunited for Alan Alda’s Clear and Vivid Podcast.

“People are playing it three and four times… really tickles me,” Swit laughs.

The myriads of fans are the ones tickled pink to celebrate MASH – a show about the horrors of war that ironically, gives a sense of comfort and security to so many of us.  Perhaps intuition alerts us that goodness and compassion infuse the aura of the 4077, both on and off screen.

The memoirs of Major Margaret Houlihan could surely fill an entire journalistic piece, but this article veers in a different direction – specifically back to the $10,000 Pyramid.  Somehow, the image of Swit excitedly encouraging a contestant with creative clues in the “winner’s circle,” shaped the lens through which I digested the information of the interview.  Mr. Rogers once said to always look for the “helpers” in life, and like her on-screen persona, Loretta Swit is a helper.  Whether rallying for a notable cause, or contributing work of substance and value, Swit has designed a life blueprint of utilizing her innate talents for good.

“Celebrity has a certain outreach….if you can use that celebrity to make good changes, it gives you an opportunity to make something out of the fame.  These are things I’ve believed in all my life.”

An accomplished painter, she married her artistic gifts with an unyielding devotion to animals, releasing SwitHeart: The Watercolour Artistry & Animal Activism of Loretta Swit.

“It’s a lifelong calling and all of the proceeds go to my charity, SwitHeart Animal Alliance.”

The soft watercolors whose eyes breathe with life and emotion, capture perfectly her affinity for these creatures, domestic and wild. In addition to this charitable endeavor, numerous other animal organizations have benefited from Swit’s support.   Yes, Radar would be proud to have company as the 4077 champion of all critters big and small, just as Swit is quick to sing the praises of co-star Gary Burghoff, as both an actor and painter.

“He focused on birds and some of his work was really gorgeous,” Swit compliments.

The lifelong relationships with her MASH family aren’t the only bonds of incredible meaning that the series has etched in Swit’s life.  As an ambassador for veterans, she has found a calling to educate, encourage appreciation of, and provide solace to those invisible wounds carried by the men and women who have served our country.  In addition to her endorsement of events such as the Honor Flight, Swit narrated the 2013 documentary, “Never the Same,” entailing the experiences of WWII Prisoners of War.

“I’m an honorary descendant of the POW’s.  They have given me that honor,” the actress affirms with a genuine reverence.

The pride and responsibility that comes with such a privilege is not at all oblivious to Swit.  Her steadfast allegiance to this often underappreciated population permeates her consciousness.

“I’m a fanatic about going up to anyone in uniform in an airport and hugging them.  We all need to put that as part of our mindset.  I thank you….I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

And rightfully so.  Starring in a show about the Korean War, airing during the Vietnam War, Swit is readily cognizant of the silence and disregard that so many servicemen endured, particularly during these time periods.

“It’s okay if you do not want to remember the war.  You cannot, however, forget those who served,” Swit emphasizes, while acknowledging a positive shift that has occurred over time.   “It has gotten better, but the bottom line is, there is no way we can ever repay them for their sacrifice.  Forgive us if we are not able to thank them enough.  It is not possible.”

The distress of this impossibility is eclipsed by the hope of transformation.  However, the winds of change are a bittersweet pill to swallow.  Ideals represented by heroes of The Greatest Generation have adapted to our cyber-centered society.

“Technology has evolved us in a direction….We’ve lost and we’ve won.  We’ve got progress but we’ve also surrendered certain things.”

And how….everything from the art of letter writing to the charm of a simple telephone call falls in danger of becoming obsolete.  Principles and messages absorbed through entertainment also reflect this evolution, making Swit’s adherence to the value of meaningful art all the more important. 

“If the public is watching junk food, they’re making that choice.  We also have things on the tube that are interesting and relevant.  It will tell us about our society to see, are we watching the stuff that is good?  There’s good stuff to be had.  The audience is in control and I have faith in the audience.”

Like her most famous on-screen persona, Swit’s candor and commitment to her beliefs are evident.

“What value is this to a young mind?,” she ponders.

A seasonal piece taken on by Swit in the early 1980’s holds significant sentimental value with many a young mind.  The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, in which Swit plays a mother coerced into directing her church’s Nativity Story, is an experience that she recalls as “wonderful.”

“It was very well done. A good director, the kids were wonderful.  It was a labor of love.  Still today, I’m given quotes.  It was such a charming idea, a very moral, very wonderful story. I loved it.”

Swit’s fond recollections on the uplifting holiday tale about a group of ragamuffins, fosters hope and encouragement in more ways than one.  Our inner child’s optimist can be reassured that what we find so heartening was a shared experience with the players as well. 

Heartening…..perhaps the best adjective to encapsulate my sentiments from a conversation with a professional who uses their fame as a platform for good. The fact that this familiar face is a TV presence since childhood is the sentimental icing on the cake.  An additional comfort, on a more personal note, came with some lovely words of encouragement given to me by Ms. Swit on the passing of my Grandma and Miniature Apricot Poodle, both of which occurred just days before.  Commenting on what a marvelous legacy my Grandma gave to me, and reassuring me that my dog, Emmy’s age of 19, is a reflection on the love I gave to her, greatly eased my worries.

Yes, the talents of Loretta Swit have held a high professional esteem of which we’re all aware.  Her reputation of benevolence and humanity is something of which we should all make ourselves aware, and follow as example.  If that’s not “switheartening,” then I don’t know what is.

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