By Shawn Raymundo
Fred Swegles, the longtime newsman who spent his career covering San Clemente and its neighboring towns, died peacefully in his sleep late Sunday afternoon, Oct. 23, after suffering health complications because of a brain tumor, members of his family confirmed. He was 74 years old.
Swegles’ portfolio of work spanned more than 50 years, having previously reported for the Daily Sun-Post and Orange County Register. In 2018, Swegles launched his CoastLines column with San Clemente Times, writing whimsical, light-hearted pieces that added a bit of levity to the weekly newspaper.
Having grown up and lived in San Clemente for most of his life—longer than the 5 Freeway, he would boast—Swegles had a deep, historical understanding of the growth of the town and South Orange County as a whole.
At staff meetings, the news team could always count on Swegles to offer valuable insight on upcoming stories before launching into his own column pitches that were well-thought-out, detailed and topical.
For about the last 16 months, Swegles battled health issues as a result of his glioblastoma diagnosis, or brain tumor, requiring surgery and ongoing treatments. One of the primary effects of the condition is aphasia, the inability to come up with words and the inability to write—a crushing and crippling reality for a renowned reporter and storyteller.
His tenure as a local journalist—which began as a cub sports reporter for San Clemente High’s The Triton—allowed him to cover San Clemente’s city government, events and happenings, crime, development and the surf scene, as well as interview a plethora of characters.
Swegles knew how to get right to the heart of an issue with his storytelling and writing, earning the trust of the community, as well as those he interviewed. He was also an adept photographer and world traveler who often wrote about his adventures to 11 San Clementes around the world.
Swegles was born Feb. 28, 1948. His first two years of high school were spent at Capistrano Union High School in San Juan Capistrano. He then transferred to San Clemente High School when it opened, and was in the school’s second graduating class.
Afterward, Swegles attended USC, where he studied journalism and Spanish, led the Daily Trojan’s sports desk as its editor, and surfed for the school’s surf team.
In 2018, Swegles’ decades-long run working for the Sun-Post ended when the parent Orange County Register shuttered the paper along with many other community weeklies. Picket Fence Media publisher Norb Garrett recalls learning of the Register’s decision and calling Swegles immediately.
“I called Fred that same day and offered him a job as a columnist for the SC Times, and he accepted on the spot but had just two conditions. First, he insisted that he would no longer cover city politics; and two, he wanted the freedom to write only fun stories celebrating San Clemente and its many personalities,” said Garrett.
“Of course, I agreed immediately,” Garrett continued. “Needless to say, I’m so honored to have had Fred work for the SC Times and call him my friend. He is a true San Clemente treasure who chronicled the town’s transformation from sleepy surf town to thriving community of 68,000.”
Over the past few years, Swegles has been recognized for his contributions to the town, twice by the San Clemente City Council and by the San Clemente Chamber of Commerce. After the Sun-Post was shuttered, councilmembers in June 2018 presented Swegles with a plaque acknowledging his work as a journalist.
“Frankly, it’s hard to determine if there’s anyone who’s had more of an impact over the last 50 years in our community,” Tim Brown, the city’s then-mayor, said, “and I just want to commend you, Fred, for everything you’ve done for the community, for the news you provide, for keeping us all informed, and for providing our residents with everything they need to know.”
In 2021, the Chamber honored Swegles by naming him the recipient of its Outstanding Lifetime Achievement award.
“Over the last 50-plus years, there’s no one in this town who’s had more awareness of San Clemente’s historical growth, issues of concern, significant historical highlights, or its notable list of community characters,” Larry Rannals, the Chamber’s then-vice-chairperson, said of Swegles at the time.
And this past August, Swegles’ name was added to San Clemente’s Wall of Recognition—an honor “dedicated to those individuals who, through their contributions and selfless efforts, have made the City of San Clemente, our community, a better place to live, work, and play.”
In honor of the placement on the wall, the City Council presented Swegles with another plaque recognizing the latest achievement.
At Swegles’ request, his family said, there will not be a formal memorial service or Celebration of Life ceremony.
San Clemente Remembers Fred
Lori Donchak, former San Clemente councilmember: “My wish is that Fred’s world of written observation be somehow captured permanently for San Clemente, and also for Southern California. Fred was a master at seeing all of us in vivid detail with balance, fairness and always accuracy. I suspect a little bit of love was sprinkled in, as Fred loved our community. His writings are a gift.”
San Clemente Mayor Gene James: “Fred Swegles was the personification of San Clemente with more than 50 years writing articles that so vividly captured the essence of the city he so loved. We have lost another San Clemente icon; however, Fred’s works will serve as an eternal reminder of his writing brilliance and passion for our city.”
Frankie D’Andre, SC Board Riders vice president: “He brought so much light to the community. I loved seeing him on his bike through town and am going to miss that smile.”
Dane Gudauskas, pro surfer: “What an incredible life to live. It was so cool how he made you feel like a part of the community. He’d always make you feel special and included in the community. It was such a beautiful thing to say, as a kid, you’d always look forward to opening the paper every week and reading his words and checking out his photos. His determination, taking the time to shoot photos and show up; he touched a lot of lives and gave us all something to believe in. He had such a huge impact on so many people. Nothing felt better than opening up that paper every week and see your name or your friend’s name in there. He was foundational to so many surfers.”
Larry Culbertson, San Clemente Historical Society president: Fred was always a friend of the Historical Society. He would often contact us to see what we had or knew about a particular topic. As often as not, we would learn as much or more from him than he did from us. He knew so much about San Clemente history, because he researched and wrote so many wonderful stories about it. His sharp memory for long-forgotten details never ceased to amaze me. His delightful way of writing stories that were entertaining, informative, and accurate will truly be missed.”
San Clemente Mayor Pro Tem Chris Duncan: Fred was San Clemente’s scribe. Nobody had a better feel for the heartbeat of our town than Fred. His news pieces read like novelettes that brought story of San Clemente to life in vivid detail. We should honor Fred by doing all we can to ensure his beautiful vision of our city becomes a reality.
Tom Marshall, Historical Society member and PFM columnist: Fred could have been a journalist anywhere on bigger papers for more money but chose to stay in his hometown to provide coverage that nobody else could put in proper context. His passing is a great loss to our community. He was a good friend as well. May he rest in peace.