Businessman. Swearingen was born in Columbia on September 7, 1918, to State Superintendent of Education John Eldred Swearingen, Sr., and his wife, Mary Hough. He married Roly George “Polly” Osterberger of New Orleans in 1942. Divorced in 1969, he married Bonnie Bolding of Birmingham, Alabama, and together they had three daughters: Marcia, Sally, and Linda.
From 1934 to 1938 Swearingen attended the University of South Carolina. Inducted into Phi Beta Kappa in 1938, he graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. Swearingen attended the Carnegie Institution of Technology in Pittsburgh (later Carnegie-Mellon University) from 1938 to 1939, earning a master’s degree in chemical engineering and the title Industrial Fellow. He would be honored with fifteen honorary degrees over his lifetime.
Swearingen accepted a position with Standard Oil of Indiana’s (later BP-Amoco) Oklahoma City branch. In 1947 he received a patent for a catalytic conversion system. In 1952 Standard transferred him to Chicago, where he was made a director and then was elected president in 1958. In 1960 Swearingen assisted with the corporate overhaul of the company and was named chief executive officer.
In 1965 Swearingen became chairman of Standard Oil, a position he would fill until he retired on his birthday in 1983. During his tenure Swearingen, an outspoken opponent of government interference in private industry, streamlined Standard’s operations and expanded the company’s oil operations into forty nations, eventually becoming decorated by the governments of Egypt, Italy, and Iran. He also directed the exploration of other fuel resources, such as natural gas, coal, and chemicals. During Swearingen’s tenure, Standard Oil became a multi-billion-dollar company and the nation’s sixth-largest corporation in net income.
Swearingen served as chair of the national Petroleum Council from 1974 to 1975 and the American Petroleum Institute from 1978 to 1979. A longtime Republican supporter, Swearingen used these positions to appear on many television programs to oppose President Jimmy Carter’s plans for solving the fuel crisis, eventually becoming the national face of “Mr. Big Oil.” After supporting Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential election, Swearingen served on the presidential task force on the arts and humanities in 1981.
In 1984 Swearingen, at the request of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, became chairman of the Continental Bank of Chicago (later Continental Illinois Corporation), holding this position until 1987 and then retiring as a board member in 1989. He took the institution from insolvency and a $4.5 billion bailout to profitability. Swearingen has held a variety of professional memberships, educational trusteeships, and corporate board positions.
From the 1950s through the 1980s Swearingen gave a variety of addresses throughout South Carolina. In 1965 he was awarded an honorary law degree from the University of South Carolina, which in 1987 dedicated its new College of Engineering facility as the John E. Swearingen Engineering Center. He was inducted into the South Carolina Business Hall of Fame in 1988.
Crittenden, Ann. “At Home with John and Bonnie.” New York Times, August 25, 1980, p. D1.
Janak, Edward. “John Eldred Swearingen and the Development of the Public High School in South Carolina.” Ph.D. diss., University of South Carolina, 2003.
Lunan, Bert, and Robert A. Pierce. Legacy of Leadership. Columbia: South Carolina Business Hall of Fame, 1999.
Martin, Douglas. “The Special State of Indiana Standard.” New York Times, December 13, 1981, sec. 3, p. 4.