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Jul 20,2007
Robert Schwanhausser's life has two big chapters: one as a man and now one as a woman
by Peter Rowe

Robert Schwanhausser's life was shrouded in mystery, but this was no secret. His three wives, two sons and countless colleagues knew that "Swany" roamed the globe on vaguely-defined missions. Between 1952 and 1984, he huddled frequently with Pentagon officials, Israeli generals, Iraqi bureaucrats.

 
HIS AND HERS - Bobbi Swan today and, in inset, as Ryan Aeronautical vice president Robert Schwanhausser. 'What an experience to have had two' genders,' Swan said during a recent visit to San Diego. 'That is remarkable. That is quite a gift.' CNS Photo by Nancee E. Lewis. 
Exactly what was promised is buried in classified reports, but everyone knew the subject: the military use of drones.

At San Diego's Ryan Aeronautical, vice president Schwanhausser cut a dashing figure. He launched spy drones over China in the '50s; slipped in and out of Saigon; sipped champagne at the Paris Air Show; briefed generals and presidents.

He led a team of the best and brightest, technical division. They are retired now, but they remember their chief as a beau ideal, the engineer as man of action.

"It was an exciting career," said Erich Oemcke, who came to work on Ryan drones in 1960. "Bob Schwanhausser made it possible."

Schwanhausser's own career was brilliant and turbulent. For Teledyne Ryan - the companies merged in 1970 - he led subsidiaries in Alabama and Ohio. He traveled a traditional executive career path, serving on local boards, joining the Navy League and the National Rifle Association, donating to Republican candidates.

But he never rose to the presidency, for reasons that may have seemed obvious. There was the bruising clash with a well-connected superior. The womanizing. The boozing. Swany did little to hide any of this; he focused on containing other, more damaging, secrets.

When he lived alone, which was often, he would draw the curtains in his condo and slip on women's clothing.

In January 2003, he flew to Thailand for surgery. When the three-hour gender reassignment operation concluded, Robert Schwanhausser no longer existed. In his place was a woman, Bobbi Swan.

Schwanhausser's life never had been an open book; no one expected otherwise. But the woman who had been Schwanhausser recently decided to go public with her tale; few expected this chapter.

"We sort of lost him," Oemcke said of his former boss. "We don't know this person Bobbi Swan. I can't figure it out."

A MAN'S PRIORITIES

When discussing the transgendered, there's little that can be said with certainty. Why does this happen? Scientists aren't sure. How many are there? The National Center for Transgender Equality's estimates of the transgendered population range widely, from 750,000 to four times that amount. What do they look like? Newsweek's May 21 cover story included a photo album of men who are now women, and women now men. They are homely and attractive, familiar and unfamiliar; they could be any random gathering of Americans.

The Old Testament condemns women donning men's garments, and vice versa (Deuteronomy 22:5), and the transgendered have been shunned by numerous denominations. Some believers, convinced they are trapped in the wrong body, wonder if God made a mistake.

Bobbi Swan rejects that notion. She believes that angelic "handlers" have shepherded her amazing life: "They wanted me to have two genders. What an experience to have had two. That is remarkable. That is quite a gift."

Robert Rowland Schwanhausser was born in Buffalo, N.Y., when the Great Depression was less than a year old. The well-to-do family emerged from the economic chaos relatively unscathed, and Bob lacked for little in his childhood.

Except, perhaps, an appreciation of traditional gender roles. Young Bob spent hours playing with a cherished doll house. He envied his mother's trips to the beauty parlor. As an older boy, sensing that his parents would disapprove, he surreptitiously modeled the family maid's uniform.

He was also drawn to the skies. Bob's father, Edwin Julius Schwanhausser, was a friend of aircraft manufacturer Larry Bell. And Bob idolized his older brother, George, who joined the Army Air Forces after Pearl Harbor. By eighth grade, Bob had decided to master the science of flying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

At MIT, Bob studied aeronautics and women. His early assessment of the latter: "There were some things that were very exciting about women." Romance, yes. (During his life as a man, Schwanhausser was sexually attracted to women. While fascinated by cross-dressing, he maintained no interest in homosexuality.)

Yet Bob didn't love women for their bodies alone. He also loved their accessories - heels, nylons, makeup - and often fantasized about wearing them himself.

"But this was a totally kept secret with no way to express."

Why?

"Priorities. My priorities were airplanes and getting established in the airplane business. Obviously, that was a man's business."

He left MIT in 1952, with a bachelor's degree and a second lieutenant's commission. With the Korean War winding down, Schwanhausser was deployed to an Air Force research command in Ohio.

One night, at a movie theater off base, he saw a newsreel account of Christine Jorgensen, an early subject of sex reassignment surgery.

Schwanhausser's first reaction: "Oh, my."

But he feared that this was still a medical experiment. "It's possible, but what would you end up with? It's a crapshoot."

Priorities. To be a success, he'd be a man.

THE RAGGED EDGE

In the final days of the Eisenhower administration, Ryan Aeronautics established a "skunk works," a below-the-radar, unpublicized lab for research on unmanned aircraft. Schwanhausser, who came to Ryan after completing his Air Force duties in 1954, was tapped in January 1960 to oversee this hush-hush project.

He assembled a staff in covert fashion. Erich Oemcke was immersed in a mundane engineering task when an emissary from Schwanhausser sidled up and ordered him to an unmarked warehouse on a San Diego boulevard.

"Don't tell anyone where you are going, what you are doing," the messenger instructed. "Just disappear."

Oemcke did. Inside the skunk works, he met Lightning Bug, a drone that soon would be snapping photos over Vietnam. Bug's missions resembled those of the larger, costlier U-2 spy plane, with one exception: if shot down, the drone would fall to Earth without a pilot risking death or captivity.

Drone work could be dangerous, though. In 1964, Schwanhausser's team began working out of Bien Hoa airfield north of Saigon, overseeing drone missions over North Vietnam and Laos. Although they were civilians, the Ryan engineers usually wore uniforms, carried rifles and, at times, came under fire.

Schwanhausser spent as much time in country as anyone from Ryan, looking after his men, fighting headquarters for additional "combat pay" and R&R breaks in Hawaii.

"He was a brilliant man and a fine man," said Cliff Smith, one of the drone engineers. "He should be getting more credit for the work he did."

By 1968, the long hours and tense conditions seemed to catch up to Schwanhausser. That December, he suffered a heart attack. Oemcke, who had become Swany's right-hand man, witnessed his boss' drinking accelerate in '69.

"It became a sort of sad situation," Oemcke said. "Many times I tried to protect him."

There were days when a hungover Schwanhausser canceled meetings, and other days when Oemcke attended in his stead. When Frank Jameson, a Ryan executive vice president, derailed another drone project, Schwanhausser had a few drinks and then called the man for a brief, high-decibel, conversation.

Jameson was a charismatic man with solid political links. (He never became head of NASA, his ambition, but did become Eva Gabor's fifth and final husband.) Within Ryan, he could be a powerful ally or a formidable foe.

In May 1969, Schwanhausser was placed on "special assignment." His team was transferred to two executive vice presidents: L.M. Limbach and Jameson.

Within the secretive world of drone engineers, though, Schwanhausser's stock remained high. In 1971, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics bestowed upon him the Outstanding Contribution to Aerospace award. Two years later, he was invited to address the group's convention in Washington.

As expected, he preached the gospel of the Remotely Piloted Vehicle (RPV): "When the weather is on the ragged edge; the flak a real thicket; the target too hardened; the approach too limited; then you are in RPV country."

The topic was national defense, not one man's struggle with his own gender. But throughout the speech, Schwanhausser relentlessly advocated radical, technologically-driven change.

There would be, he predicted from the podium, a "new evolving form during the coming decade."

PERSONAL TIME

In the 1970s, Schwanhausser's life took a series of sharp turns. He left Teledyne Ryan; formed his own consulting firm; wooed overseas clients for a third company; and returned to Teledyne Ryan.

He divorced Mary Lea Hunter, the mother of his two sons, in 1978.

He married Beverly Allemann in 1979.

All of this was public knowledge. His employers even knew about the 1977 stretch in rehab, which followed a nearly lethal overdose of Lithium and booze.

Sober, Schwanhausser resuscitated his Teledyne Ryan career. He scouted new drone clients in Amman, Baghdad and Tel Aviv, cultivating friendships on all sides of the Arab-Israeli divide. But his private life was threatening to become public.

While living alone in Wilmington, Del., he assembled a wardrobe of women's clothes and wigs. He read about transsexuals and wrote for LadyLike and similarly-themed publications.

His second wife stumbled across his secret; that marriage ended. A third began, to a woman whose business catered to cross-dressers. They shared that interest, but little else.

As the 1990s ended, Schwanhausser was no longer working or married.

"This is your personal time right now," he told himself. "You are not beholden to society or others. By God, I can be selfish for once."

Schwanhausser saw a counselor. Started taking hormones. And called his kids.

The summer before his surgery, Schwanhausser met his youngest son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren at Cedar Point amusement park in Ohio. Schwanhausser was dressed as a woman.

After a full day of riding roller coasters, Schwanhausser's son took the group to dinner. "What do you want, Daddy?" the son asked. "Oh, sorry. What would you like, Bobbi?"

SLOW TRANSITION

Bobbi Swan is 6-foot-2, with hands and feet to match. Her voice is deep. "Over the phone," she said, "I sound like a man."

Biologically, she has been a woman since January 2003. Surgeons and pharmacists have given Swan functioning female genitalia, prominent breasts and a steady stream of hormones. After decades of pining for this transformation, she is living inside a woman's skin. Psychologically and emotionally, though, is she truly a woman?

"This is a very slow transition," she said. "I'm still adjusting to myself. It's a continual thing. It's a healthy thing."

From her perfume (Coty's Nokomis, strong jasmine and sandalwood notes), to her jewelry (delicate gold watch, slim gold necklace) to her outfits (high necklines and mid-calf hemlines), she's an old-fashioned lady. She has her hair done once a week, dishing with the stylist. She experiments with gel nails ("much better than acrylic") and polish (a favorite: OPI's Pompeii Purple). She reminds herself to walk with more hip action and less swagger from her wide shoulders.

At home in Clinton Township, Mich., she has girlfriends - most know her past - but no boyfriends.

Not yet, at least. "The right guy, the right place, the right time, who knows?" But at 76, romance is not a high priority.

Swan is not active in the gay, lesbian and transgendered advocacy circles. But she stays current on gender issues, and was taken aback by an angry letter to the editor that greeted Newsweek's recent cover story. Still, she noted that most of the letters were curious and thoughtful, rather than hostile.

She's also been buoyed by an unexpected development. Most of Schwanhausser's old colleagues, a conservative tribe, have responded to Swan with grace and encouragement.

"I never picked up a clue nor had any suspicions that cross-dressing or the desire to become a woman was such a powerful part of your inner self," Gene Timmons, a former Ryan engineer, wrote in a Christmas message to his old colleague. "I can only imagine the pain and anxiety you must have lived with over the years.

"To have overcome the staggering obstacles (emotional and physical) to make this change is quite remarkable and I am truly happy that it has worked out so well for you."

Swan insists that she's delighted with this change, and maintains it has given her new insight into all things female - including the travails of his former Ryan secretaries. Still, surgery and medication alone cannot turn a man into a woman. "I think the biggest changes come gradually. Like it would if you moved into a new area.

"You ease into it. It takes awhile before you are accepted."

Recently, she flew to San Diego, rented a car and checked into a motel. Then she set out to renew friendships and introduce Bobbi Swan to Robert Schwanhausser's oldest son. They met over dinner.

"The discussion was very warm, very friendly," Swan said. "But we did not talk about the gender issue at all. I had been counseled by some of my friends to not push it.

"After dinner, hugs and on we go."

The five-day visit was too short, given all the ground between this woman and the people in her lives. Before flying home, though, Swan pronounced the journey worthwhile.

"It went pretty well," she said. "I got a little bit confused, driving around San Diego. There have been a lot of changes in 10 years."

Copley News Service
1652 times read

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