William Lee “Bill” Swail, the founder and personality behind Peoples Rx Pharmacies, died on January 25th after a long illness. He was 79 years old.
He will be remembered for his sense of humor, infectious laugh, customer service, and for being ahead of his time in focusing on improving whole body health, starting with the food we eat and the supplements we take.
“He was always so far-sighted,” said daughter Janeen Swail Schloz. “People would call him a visionary. He always seemed to know what was around the corner next.”
Swail founded Peoples Rx with an office on the Pack Saddle Pass in South Austin in 1980. It grew into four stores and a pharmacy made up of custom drugs. Peoples Rx is part pharmacy and part grocery and deli shop, with a focus on health.
“I was saying I don’t know where Bill Swail ends and Peoples Pharmacy starts,” Schloz said. “It was what lived and breathed.”
Swail drove the pharmacy until October 2017, when he was in a car accident that forced him to leave. The pharmacy will continue to be owned by the Swail family and will have a board of directors to lead it.
Swail leaves behind his life partner, Elvie Taylor Swail, their four children and 10 grandchildren, and his sister Marjorie Randall.
A funeral service will be held February 13 at 2pm at Antone’s, 305 E. Fifth St. It will be broadcast live.
Finding a passion for the pharmacy
Being a pharmacist wasn’t always what Swail wanted to do. Born on February 28, 1942, Swail moved to Austin from Houston to attend the University of Texas in 1960. He also joined the Air Force Reserve.
Swail loved to learn. He was close to graduating in business administration, fine arts, science and economics. Eventually, Elvie told him to pick something and keep it. He chose to study pharmacy and later earned his doctorate in pharmacy from the University of Arkansas in 1973.
The couple returned to Austin in 1974, where they worked at the Ace Mart Drug Store before deciding to open their own business.
Creation of Peoples Rx in Austin
The Peoples Rx he built was a family place, where employees started as teenagers and stayed, or left and returned.
“They loved him,” Schloz said. “But they also loved Peoples’ mission. He was not only generous with the customers, but also with the employees and provided a family atmosphere.”
Swail had a fleet of used cars that employees could borrow if they needed them, Schloz said.
“Bill has always been kind and always wanted to know if you had what you needed to be successful,” said Deborah Fernandes, who has worked with Peoples Rx as a pharmacist for 25 years. If she worked nights, he would come by to check on her to make sure she was okay.
“For me it was always the textbook definition of an entrepreneur,” he said, because he was always looking for new things.
Swail loved supporting Austin’s small businesses in his pharmacy by bringing local produce.
“Long before farm on the table became a thing, he started talking about food and how important it was,” said Fernandes. “He was always at the forefront of health and wellness. Much of what he implemented was extravagant 25 years ago, but now we know it’s one thing. He was way ahead of his time.”
When Fernandes goes to the compound association meetings, he said, people are curious about the Peoples Rx model of having a deli and wellness team with nurses and nutritionists. “It’s a very unique business model and people are blown away,” he said.
Pharmacists came to Peoples to train and then took that model elsewhere.
Taking care of customers: “This is really his legacy”
Before Austin had 24-hour pharmacies, Peoples’ had an emergency line that was Swail’s home number. She would open the pharmacy at 2 am if anyone needed anything, Schloz said.
“His philosophies of caring, listening and promoting well-being are so ingrained in us,” Fernandes said. “We are here to support others in whatever capacity. This is really his legacy.”
Often this has meant that if a customer couldn’t afford the drugs or didn’t have insurance that Peoples could accept, Peoples would give them to that customer for free. “We say, ‘What would Bill do?’ many times, “Fernandes said. “It is more important that that little child has his medicine than the $ 50 or $ 60 we would have received. He would do it to blame.”
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Peoples tried delivery like other pharmacies, but it didn’t work for Peoples’ customers.
“People loved her role model. They love to go there, look around and put their questions aside for our wellness team,” Fernandes said.
Away from the pharmacy
While Swail was building the pharmacy, he was often away from home and when they went out to eat as a family, “we had to share it with the rest of Austin,” Schloz said. “It was only half the time at our table because he had to say hello to everyone.”
He loved dining at Austin’s quirky restaurants like Fonda San Miguel and Matt’s El Rancho.
Swail also loved keeping active, from running to skiing and traveling. He also loved gardening and cooking.
He was passionate about educating people about health and healthy eating. He hosted a weekly Saturday radio show on KLBJ called “Healthy Choices” and another KJCE program “Let’s Get Healthy” and “The Good News Health Show” on KLGO.
“He loved learning, educating and sharing cutting-edge health information, and that was yet another way he did it,” Schloz said.
Fernandes said employees will remember him for the father figure he was to them. “We loved each other,” he said. “He fashioned Him. He was truly one of a kind of him.”
Remembering Bill Swail
A memorial will be held at 2:00 pm on February 13 at Antone’s, 305 E. Fifth St. It will also be streamed.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to Project 8P, Texas Association of Naturopathic Doctors, Capital City Village, or Samaritan Center, Austin.
Condolences can be shared on greencremationtexas.com.