KANSAS CITY — John Swanton huddled in a dank, abandoned building and sucked swirling crack cocaine smoke through a thin glass tube.
It's what he'd done on countless nights in Boston, Chicago and finally here.
By daylight, the crack addict walked Kansas City's streets. He got a complete view — inside and out —of "some beautifully constructed old buildings." Even in his drug daze, he thought, "Someday I'd like to buy 'em and fix 'em up."
Six years later, his life has spun 180 degrees.
He still believes old buildings in Kansas City would be a great investment. Only now, with a bachelor's degree in business in hand and eight months shy of two graduate business degrees, the thought is a career goal — rehab vacant buildings for low- and middle-income residents — instead of an addict's pipe dream. "I can dream big, and why not?" he said.
Swanton, a big man at 6 feet 4 and 340 pounds, grew up Irish Catholic near Boston. He started college at the University of Massachusetts' campus in Lowell, but partied his way to dropping out.
Twenty years ago, he was making "a pretty good salary" as co-founder of an advertising sales business that he started in Boston and then moved to Chicago. He had clients in four states, including Missouri.
Then, one night with a woman who knew how to "cook" cocaine into crack started him on a downward spiral. Over the next two decades, cocaine was a slow-moving fog over his life.
He kept up appearances early on, bingeing on drugs at night, working the next day. He spent most of what he earned on drugs.
"I preferred buying drugs to paying the rent," he recalled.
He eventually moved to Kansas City, where he lost everything, including friends and his connections with family. In the throes of addiction, he said, "I stole from friends — I stole from my mother."
He had several run-ins with police, including arrests for petty thefts and traffic violations. He was homeless off and on, evicted "about a dozen times," he said. Court records bear him out.
In the summer of 2005, sweltering heat forced Swanton from the streets.
He'd been kicked out of a shelter for stealing from another homeless person. He was glad for the spot he got at the Kansas City Rescue Mission, even if it meant he had to pray. It was his last resort.
The only way to assure he'd have a bed each night was to join the mission's six-month drug and alcohol rehabilitation program — chapel every day, life skills courses and counseling.
He went to the mission looking to get out of the heat. He found a way to put down his crack pipe and stop drinking.
"That mission saved my life," Swanton said.
Joe Colaizzi, director of the mission, remembers when Swanton slept there.
"John seemed to be somewhat of a different cut," Colaizzi said. "The difference with John was his resolve, his commitment to take advantage of an opportunity that would restore him."
Then there was his "remorseful spirit," Colaizzi said. "When he came to realize what he had done to friends, he realized he had fallen far from the man he wanted to be and had to make a change."
In 2006, Swanton graduated from the mission's program, moved into transitional housing and, with federal Pell grant money, enrolled at Metropolitan Community College-Penn Valley.
A year later he received the Victor Wilson Scholarship — $5,000 a year — awarded to Kansas City residents who attend the University of Missouri-Kansas City. A grant from a state agency, Vocational Rehabilitation, covered the rest of his tuition, books and fees.
Swanton spent his days in class and his nights working as a dispatcher for Yellow Cab and Super Shuttle. He eventually had enough money for his own apartment, where he's lived nearly four years.
"The first time I re-signed a lease was a lot of fun," he said. "I knew I could do this."
Today, the 48-year-old is on track to be among the first graduates of a new master's program at UMKC, one of the top-ranked business schools in the country.
Swanton, who last year earned his bachelor's degree in business and finance, this fall began his second semester and is on the road to graduate in May with master's degrees in business administration and finance. The master's of science in finance is a new program for UMKC's business school.
"He exhibits all the characteristics of someone who really will see his dreams to fruition," said Walt Clements, one of Swanton's business professors.
"He has a good, clear, analytical mind," said Clements, who is director of the Lewis White Real Estate Center at UMKC. "It was a breath of fresh air having John in my classes."
After Swanton graduates, he plans to go into urban development and real estate.
"When I walked the streets homeless, I saw all these beautiful structures just empty, and in my mind I would think about what I would do with them. Now, because the market is so good for what I want to do, I see many of them are getting picked off one by one while I'm in school.
"But that's OK. I trust there are more empty buildings. It's a big city."
Every experience in life, good or bad, has value, Swanton said. "They lead you somewhere."
If he hadn't been strung out and homeless, he never would have found his way to the Rescue Mission.
"I know I wouldn't be here today if everything in my life hadn't gone just the way it did," he said, suggesting that his addiction eventually would have killed him.
"I had friends who didn't come in to the mission, and they are dead," Swanton said.
He thinks maybe his story could generate community support for the homeless shelter and alcohol/drug recovery center.
The mission has survived 60 years on donations and volunteerism from the community. But in this economy, "people still reach out to support us, but the amount of the gifts has decreased," Colaizzi said.
"We've had to reach into our reserves for paying staff, putting food on the table and paying the light bill. It's hard to live from hand to mouth for anyone," he said. "As time goes on and the economy continues to sputter, those reserves dwindle."
Swanton helps out in the mission's kitchen when he's not in class because "I'll never forget how I got to where I am," he said.
And now, he said, "I believe I can do just about anything I want. What I really want is to someday own the (Boston) Red Sox."
"I know that may not seem realistic, but hey, look at me — miracles do happen."