The founder of Austin’s Peoples Rx pharmacy, Bill Swail, dies

William Lee “Bill” Swail, the founder and personality behind Peoples Rx pharmacies, passed away on January 25 after a prolonged illness. He was 79.

He will be ahead of the curve for his sense of humor, infectious laugh, customer service and time to focus on improving whole body health starting with the food we eat and the supplements we take.

“He was always so forward-thinking,” said daughter Janeen Swail Schloz. “People would call him a visionary. He always seemed to know what was around the corner next.”

Swail started Peoples Rx in 1980 with a location at Pack Saddle Pass in South Austin. It has grown into four stores and a compound pharmacy for personalized medicines. Peoples Rx is part pharmacy, part grocery and deli with a focus on health.

“I’ve always said I don’t know where Bill Swail ends and Peoples Pharmacy begins,” Schloz said. “It was what he lived and breathed.”

Swail ran the pharmacy until October 2017, when he was in a car accident that forced him to resign. The pharmacy remains in the hands of the Swail family and is managed by a board of directors.

Swail is survived by his partner Elvie Taylor Swail, their four children and ten grandchildren, and his sister Marjorie Randall.

A memorial service will be held at 2:00 p.m. on February 13 at Antone’s, 305 E. Fifth St. It will be broadcast live.

Bill Swail

Discover a passion for pharmacy

Becoming a pharmacist wasn’t always what Swail wanted to do. Born on February 28, 1942, Swail moved to Austin from Houston in 1960 to attend the University of Texas. He also joined the Air Force Reserve.

Swail liked to study. He was about to graduate in business administration, fine arts, natural sciences and economics. Eventually Elvie told him to pick something and stick with it. He decided to study pharmacy and received his doctorate in pharmacy from the University of Arkansas in 1973.

The couple returned to Austin in 1974, where he worked at the Ace Mart drug store before deciding to open his own business.

Building People’s Rx in Austin

The Peoples Rx he built was a place for families, where employees started as teenagers and stayed or went and came back.

“They loved him,” said Schloz. “But they also loved the Peoples mission. Not only was he generous with customers, he was also generous with employees and created a family atmosphere.”

Swail used to have a fleet of used cars that employees could borrow when needed, Schloz said.

“Bill has always been kind and always wanting to know if you have what you need to be successful,” said Deborah Fernandes, a pharmacist at Peoples Rx for 25 years. When she was working nights, he would come and check on her to make sure she was okay.

“For me, he was always just the textbook definition of an entrepreneur,” she said, because he was always trying new things.

Swail loved supporting Austin’s small businesses at his pharmacy by introducing local products.

“Long before farm to table was a thing, he started talking about food and how important it was,” Fernandes said. “He was always on the cutting edge of health and well-being. So much of what he did 25 years ago was crazy, but now we know that’s one thing. He was way ahead of his time.”

When Fernandes travels to compounding association meetings, she says, people are curious about the Peoples Rx model of having a deli and a wellness team with nurses and nutritionists. “It’s a very unique business model and people are amazed,” she said.

Pharmacists came to Peoples to train and then adopted that model elsewhere.

Customer care: “It really is his legacy”

Before Austin had 24-hour pharmacies, Peoples’ had an emergency number that was Swail’s home number. He would open the pharmacy at 2 a.m. if anyone needed anything, Schloz said.

“His philosophy of caring, listening and promoting well-being is so ingrained in us,” said Fernandes. “We are here to support others in whatever capacity. That really is his legacy.”

Often this meant that if a customer couldn’t afford their medication or didn’t have insurance that Peoples could accept, then Peoples would give it to that customer for free. “We’re like, ‘What would Bill do?’ often,” said Fernandes. “It’s more important that this little baby has his medicine than the $50 or $60 we would have gotten. He would make that a mistake.”

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Peoples tried delivery like other pharmacies, but it didn’t work for Peoples customers.

“People loved his model. They love going in there and looking around and saving their questions for our wellness team,” said Fernandes.

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 him with the rest of Austin,” Schloz said. “He was only at our table half the time because he had to say hello to everyone.”

He loved dining at Austin originals like Fonda San Miguel and Matt’s El Rancho.

Swail also loved staying active, from running to skiing to traveling. He also loved gardening and cooking.

He was passionate about educating people about health and healthy eating. He has hosted a weekly Saturday radio show on KLBJ called “Healthy Choices” and another show on KJCE “Let’s Get Healthy” and “The Good News Health Show” on KLGO.

“He loved learning, educating and sharing cutting-edge health information, and this was another way to do that,” Schloz said.

Fernandes said staff will remember him as the father figure he was to them. “We loved each other,” she said. “He lived that. He was really unique.”

In memory of Bill Swail

A memorial service 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.

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