MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — On Thursday we learned a fatal car crash in Dakota County took the life of an award-winning high school theater teacher and director.

Dennis Swanson earned a spot in the Minnesota State High School Hall of Fame.

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The Minnesota State Patrol says Wednesday afternoon, the car he was driving veered across the center line of Highway 50 in Hampton and was hit by a truck head-on. He died at the scene. It’s not clear what caused the accident.

(credit: CBS)

(credit: CBS)

Swanson was 70 years old and retired, but continued to work. His name was Dennis, but he went by Denny.

Dr. Polly Reikowski is the principal at Eagan High School. She became friends with Swanson in the 1970s. The principal at Eagan High School says he was a powerful influence for 40 years, starting the theater programs at Apple Valley High School, Lakeville South and Eagan High School.

She says he had a gift when it came to helping students untap their hidden talents. It takes a special person to be able to instill confidence in teenagers.

“He would find these kids and get them to think about ‘Can you get this into your life, can you fit it in your schedule?’ And try to get them to try something they’d never tried before,” Dr. Reikowski said.

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Kids who never saw themselves on stage ended up there anyway.

“He’d say, ‘We need you. We need you to come and try out.’  Wait, wait, I’ve never been in a play. ‘You can be in a play!'” she said as she described Swanson’s interactions with students.

Decades of musicals and plays directed by Denny Swanson have won multiple awards and statewide recognition. Rows of plaques fill the trophy case at Eagan High School, and dozens of photos of cast members in costumes line the walls outside the auditorium.

“He was really good at what he did. He earned more One Act Play starred ratings, which is the highest rating you can get at the state tournament, than any director in the state,” she said.

She says even after he retired from teaching in 2003, he came back to direct at least one show a school year, and a summer community theater production.

“He was 70 years old. He wasn’t ready to go. There was no way. He had been struggling with some back issues, but seeing doctors on how to fix that. He wasn’t in any way ready to go,” Dr. Reikowski said.

Denny Swanson was scheduled to direct a summer production of the Wizard of Oz at Eagan High School.  It’s not clear what will happen to that show now.

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Some of his former students went on to pursue careers in theater, including Laura Osnes, who is now a professional actor and singer on Broadway.