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Remembering Bill Swail: 1942–2022

By Connor Yearsley

Bill Swail

Bill Swail, the founder and personality of Peoples Rx in Austin, Texas, died in Austin on January 25, 2022, at age 79, after an extended illness. His friends, family, and former employees remember his vision, entrepreneurship, good nature, kindness, generosity, and humility, and his unique approach to serving the health needs of customers and the Austin community.1,2

His stores emphasized whole-body health and integrative forms of health care, and he created an “east meets west” environment that other holistic pharmacies have tried to replicate. Several former American Botanical Council (ABC) employees have been Peoples Rx employees.

Swail was born in Houston on February 28, 1942, and was the third of five children of George and Constance Swail. After graduating from South Houston High School in 1960, Swail moved to Austin, where he attended the University of Texas and joined the Air Force Reserve. In Austin, he was an active member of Trinity Chapel, where he met his future wife Elvie in 1966. He and Elvie married in 1967 and moved to Arkansas, where he attended the University of Central Arkansas and then, in 1973, received a doctorate of pharmacy from the University of Arkansas.1,2

In 1974, the couple moved back to Austin, where Swail worked at Ace Mart Drug Store and Consumers Drug Store before starting his own business. In 1980, he opened the first Peoples Rx location in South Austin. Now, Peoples Rx, which is part pharmacy, part natural foods store, and part deli, has grown to four locations and a compounding center for personalized medications.1,2

Swail wanted to create an environment where people could receive personalized care and attention and holistic and natural medicine advice. At Peoples Rx, customers are greeted by wellness specialists, nutritionists, naturopathic physicians, and other health practitioners who are trained to recommend personalized health plans.3

Peoples Rx products include natural supplements, such as vitamins, minerals, and herbal remedies. Three of the four locations also include Peoples Deli & Bakery, which serves food such as organic smoothies, bone broth, and local, grass-fed beef chili. All Peoples locations offer “grab-n-go” options like raw organic juices, salads, sandwiches, deviled eggs, and gluten-free baked goods such as cookies, brownies, and cake.3

Swail strived to create a family-oriented atmosphere, where employees started as teenagers and stayed, or left and then came back. At one time, Swail had several used cars that employees could borrow if they needed. Before Austin had 24-hour pharmacies, Peoples Rx had an emergency line, which was Swail’s home phone number, and he would open the pharmacy at 2:00 a.m. if anyone needed anything. Swail also sometimes gave medications away to people who could not afford them or who did not have insurance.1

His customers frequently told him they “cannot leave Austin, because there’s no Peoples” outside Austin, Swail was quoted as saying.3

Peoples Rx also offers free seminars and workshops to educate the public and practitioners about a wide range of health topics, often about nutrition and natural health options.

For years, Swail hosted two radio shows: the Good News Health Show, which aired on Saturday mornings on a Christian radio station in Austin, and Let’s Get Healthy, which aired on Saturday afternoons. Both shows focused on the latest in natural, holistic, and integrative health and usually had the same co-hosts and mostly the same guests but reached different audiences.

“Bill was a true pioneer in the pharmacy profession,” said Swail’s friend and colleague Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of ABC (email, July 14, 2022). “Early on, he recognized that a good diet and various nutritional and botanical dietary supplements, as well as other so-called ‘alternative’ health modalities, had an important place in a healthy lifestyle and in preventive medicine. He was likely the first person in the Texas area who employed accredited naturopathic physicians in his stores to help educate consumers on their health choices. His entrepreneurial vision was exceeded only by his huge generosity. He was a true asset to the health of the Central Texas community. I miss his great sense of humor and our dinners together. (He would order bottles of some of the best red wines – for optimal health reasons, of course!)”

Swail led Peoples Rx until October 2017, when he was in a car accident that forced him to step away. Before that, he also was an active member of the South Austin Kiwanis, a community service organization. He was a speaker at the University of Texas College of Pharmacy, a member of the Board of Directors of the St. David’s South Austin Medical Center, and more. In his spare time, he enjoyed running, skiing, traveling, gardening, and cooking.1,2

Jeneen Swail Schloz, Swail’s daughter, wrote (email, April 19, 2022):

My dad was a maverick and trailblazer in his professional field…. I love that my dad gave the big Barton Creek Farmers Market its start years ago in the parking lot of one of his stores and that he gave the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance regular interviews on his radio shows to help support small-scale, local farmers, ranchers, and producers. And I love that he played a part in the legalization of industrial hemp [Cannabis spp., Cannabaceae] as well as cannabinoids in Texas. He was an incredible role model in so many ways and will be remembered for his twinkling blue eyes and smile that could light up a room, his generous heart, his fun disposition, and the unique ability he had of making everyone feel special and important.

Perhaps most memorable of all was his incredible generosity. He supported customers, employees, and the community at large in innumerable and immeasurable ways. With his deep compassion and desire to share his wisdom and knowledge, he gave people hope and assisted the healing of those with health struggles and who mainstream medicine dismissed, couldn’t figure out, left behind, or hurt. Few did more to help shape the landscape of natural health and wellbeing in the city of Austin than Bill Swail. Hence the city named his birthday, February 28, 2022, Bill Swail Day. His children plan to carry his legacy forward through Peoples Rx and, as best they can, through their own personal examples in the world.

Laurie Aroch, PharmD, co-founder of Viva Day Spa in Austin and a former Peoples Rx employee, wrote (email, April 18, 2022):

Bill always had something funny to say, an interesting story to tell, or a thought-provoking question to ask. It was a joy being in his presence. He was kind to all.

I loved many aspects of his personality, but what I appreciated most was his natural tendency to be a skeptic…

When my rationale was as simple as “Well, that is what they say,” he would look at me and say, “Well, who is ‘they’ and what if ‘they’ are wrong?”

Whether it be medical science, political, or any other “expert” point of view, he always, as he smiled, had his unique way of looking at it. For that, I adore and appreciate him even more!

Ray Solano, RPh, CCN, president of Prescription Dispensing Laboratories in Cedar Park, Texas, and a former Peoples Rx employee who operated the People’s Rx compounding center, wrote (email, April 12, 2022):

Bill always valued two things in his business: first, his employees, especially those who were starting out and showed a lot of enthusiasm to work hard, and second, the total satisfaction of his customers to feel better. He realized many [pharmaceutical] drugs were not designed to cure chronic conditions and looked for other solutions such as food and supplements.

Bill never ran away from difficult decisions or situations that appeared hopeless or too expensive to achieve. Everything was possible in Bill’s eyes. I learned more about business working with Bill than in all the years in school and remember his wise advice every day.

Tom Schnorr, RPh, owner of Austin Compounding Pharmacy, wrote (email, April 19, 2022):

I met Bill in the early ’80s. I was a pharmacist in Houston and deeply involved in the AIDS community. My only outlet was folk music and singer-songwriters who came to Houston to perform. I housed many while they traveled and treated starving musicians who needed medication or doctoring. I came to know Bill at big music events…. We became fast friends thereafter. We both were helping the music industry in our own similar ways.

In 2002, I walked into the South Lamar Peoples Rx and asked Bill why he was working the “case” (prescription counter). He said he was short a pharmacist. I said, “Not anymore.” He nodded, went out the door, glanced back, and said, “Cover me. I’m going to dinner.” Three days later, he came back and saw me still covering for his dinner and offered me a position at the store.

Three years later, I got an offer to buy my own store that was struggling to keep its doors open. Bill kept me on the payroll for a year to work weekends when my store was closed. That was the only money I made that year, and I thanked him for keeping a roof over my head…. I miss his essence. There is a hole … with his passing.

Bill Swail is survived by his life partner Elvie Taylor Swail; his children Jeneen, Michael, Charles, and Bradley; 10 grandchildren; and his sister Marjorie Randall. A memorial service for Swail was held in Austin on February 13, 2022. Peoples Rx will continue to be owned by the Swail family and is guided by a board of directors.1,2

References

  1. Villalpando N. Founder of Peoples Rx pharmacy dies, leaving legacy of personalized health care. Austin American-Statesman. February 4, 2022. Available at: www.statesman.com/story/news/local/2022/02/04/founder-austins-peoples-rx-pharmacy-bill-swail-dies/6648951001/. Accessed July 9, 2022.
  2. William Lee (Bill) Swail. Austin American-Statesman. January 30, 2022. Available at: www.statesman.com/obituaries/p0187010. Accessed July 9, 2022.
  3. Albiges M. Peoples Pharmacy owner Bill Swail: Shops’ holistic approach to Rx has grown loyal customer base. Community Impact. October 26, 2016. Available at: https://communityimpact.com/austin/business/2016/10/26/taking-holistic-approach-rx-peoples-pharmacy-owner-bill-swail-says-shops-beloved-austin/. Accessed July 9, 2022.
References