Lone Star Swan strode past Panchita’s, a baby pigeon huddled to his breast. He reached his destination, then lifted the bird to his face; its feathers were black, like the headband corralling Swan’s mop of white hair. 

“These are advanced human beings,” Swan said of the hundreds of pigeons fidgeting around him. “These are ancient wizards that decide to reincarnate in something without hands, so man couldn’t put him to work.” 

John Ratliff, also known as “Lone Star Swan,” “Swan,” “Saint Swan” and “The Birdman,” was an award-winning journalist and poet when, in 1972, he began experiencing psychotic episodes. Eventually schizophrenic and unhoused, he made the Mission’s 16th Street his home, and its pigeons his flock. On Monday, Feb. 7, he died at 3:15 p.m. from sepsis and aspiration pneumonia at Sutter Health Alta Bates Medical Center. He was 81. 

For decades, he had been a neighborhood character, adored, ignored and watched over by a slew of locals, many connected with Adobe Books. Twice he was depicted in murals by Daniel Doherty, a Clarion Alley Mural Project artist. In one, he sits with seeds in outstretched hands, birds swirling around him; in the other, he’s stooped at Adobe Books, a vigilant pigeon flying over his head. 

Strangers and Mission locals helped him. Sometimes, Swan rebuffed attempts to get off the streets because he couldn’t live without the birds; he kept feeding them outside his window, pissing off neighbors and violating building rules, a 2019 Mission Local article recounted.  

“I’m doing what I feel I must do,” Swan said in the 2002 documentary he starred in. “I guess I’m happy. I’m doing what I’m damn well gonna do.”

John Ratliff, the Birdman, sits on a bench on 16th and Mission Streets, watching the birds peck rice off the cement in San Francisco, on October 28, 2016. By Julio Marcial.

Early Life of John Ratliff

Swan was born in Poteet, Texas, on Aug. 31, 1940 to Rev. Henry Ratliff and Margaret Sale Ratliff. He was the eldest of seven children.

His father’s ministry led the family all over: Massachusetts, Tennessee, New Hampshire. “We were best buddies, but he was a teasing tyrant,” his sister Catherine said. 

Swan was “very smart” and graduated in 1958, a year early, from Seymour High School in Wisconsin, where he already was a prolific poet. His sister said he had a strong-willed reputation, and learned to perfect an imitation of Elvis Presley to win over the girls.

He then went to Texas for a semester at Southern Methodist University, where he studied English. He served four years in the U.S. Navy and received an honorable discharge, and spent a year at the private Lutheran college Augustana University in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where he met his future wife, Mary Overdahl. The two traveled to San Francisco and stayed for a year, partying among the hippies, Catherine said.  

Swan returned to South Dakota to pursue journalism, and in 12 years he churned out more than 2,000 works and a dozen documentaries. He worked at the United Press International from 1965 to 1969, and simultaneously at the local Sioux Falls station KELO-TV from 1966 to 1969. 

From 1969 to 1972, the job took him to news station WICS-TV in Springfield, Illinois, where Swan met a lifelong friend, Roger Wolfe. The pair often shot for each other on 16-millimeter film and grabbed lunch, when Swan would share his “unique perspective,” Wolfe recalled. Soon, Swan snagged a position as a filmmaking instructor at Sangamon State University, and worked on films or commercials that sometimes starred his children. He also completed educational freelance work for the State of Illinois; one 95-page script included scenes of monsters, knights and dancing.  

Panelists noticed the quality. The San Francisco Film Festival, in 1974, awarded his documentary “SAM,” a 20-minute film that focused on an epileptic runner in the Special Olympics. He also won the United Press International Competition and an Associated Press Sweepstakes award in 1970. 

Swan married Overdahl in 1964 and they had four children, David, Charles, Krissa and Casey. His children remembered him as a remarkable father who instilled in them a love of writing, gave them coffee, and taught them gambling lessons. He and Overdahl wrote a lullaby that he sang nightly to the kids: “All the world spins around like an apple/on a tree that is painted blue/the sun, she’ll be back tomorrow/with a bright shining smile for you.”

By 1972 the schizophrenic episodes began, and violent tendencies followed. For a two-week period, Swan held the family hostage on a farm; the kids gnawed on corn, and Overdahl’s weight dropped to 85 pounds, she said in a two-part documentary “Schizophrenia.” In 1973, Overdahl took her children and separated from Swan. They officially divorced in 1977. 

Each child would visit their father only a few more times in his life. “Us kids were very important to dad. It just broke his heart, when all the calamities came to a head,” said David, who is now a 57-year-old chess coach in Minnesota. 

Months before Swan’s death, his children discovered his poem, “Snow,” which he dedicated to his “children in Minnesota.”

Becoming a Lone Star Swan rich in “rags”

In 1978, David kept a diary of the nine days he spent with his father in San Francisco. By then, his dad lived within walking-distance of Lombard Street with his girlfriend and her daughters. He took David on windy motorcycle rides, bought him fried ice cream and cheered him up with fatherly advice. 

In 1981, David qualified for a chess U.S. Open tournament in San Francisco, and arrived with his nine-year-old brother, Casey, in tow. In that two-week period, Swan purchased a school bus and piled his family inside, including Casey, and moved to San Jose. Afterward, Casey hopped on a Greyhound back to the city, and returned home with his brother.

Catherine, Swan’s sister, who lives in Tennessee, saw him in the Mission again in 1986, after finding his writings pinned to a restaurant cork board. She said when she found him, he explained to her he had just finished talking to a gnat that told him the secrets of the universe.

Andrew McKinley, the owner of Adobe Books, remembered it was 1988 when Swan’s Volkswagen bus/home arrived back in the Mission. Back then, Adobe Books inhabited 16th Street, and Swan inhabited Adobe’s doorway and basement.

“He had this love of news; he had a love for animals and insects. But I guess he slowly devolved into a bird feeder,” McKinley previously told Mission Local. Around then, Swan began insisting that people call him Lone Star Swan. 

Eventually, the bus was towed and Swan found himself on the streets. Still, he visited Adobe, which was the neighborhood’s living room then, according to John, a current Adobe staffer. Over the years John observed Swan, who smoked weed out front and sheltered in the store to write his one-sheet daily newsletter, dubbed Rags. Adobe possesses thousands of copies of the newsletter, and has considered assembling them into a book. 

Sometimes, Swan’s daily newsletter declared political revolution or campaigns for president. One, advertising his presidential campaign, ran a giant photo of Swan’s self-declared “dreamy” younger self and read: “No Nukes. Pro-Grass & Women. No Parking Meters, Also, pro-Black.” He added: “RUN YOURSELF FOR PRESIDENT TODAY. PLASTER YOUR OWN PICTURE ALL OVER TOWN.”

Frequently, Swan hung out on 16th Street. He sat at Picaro Cafe and the BART Plaza, tossing bird seed or rice to the pigeons. He fashioned splints for the injured ones, and recognized each, said John from Adobe. “He was a Mission character, like the Red Man,” he added. “He wanted everyone to like the underdog pigeons and the mice and roaches. He wanted them to be respected and things like that.” 

To passersby, Swan was just another screaming, mentally-ill, unhoused resident trying to make it in San Francisco. He’d send his old friend and colleague Wolfe letters occasionally asking for money in exchange for a lengthy poem. 

“ … All is mostly well here on the 10th floor, amid

yet at times above, the Great Depression invisibly

passing below … ”

John Ratliff “Swan” . Excerpt of poem sent to Roger Wolfe.

“He’d write a story and I’d think, I never would’ve thought of writing it like that,” Wolfe said. “It was always compelling.” 

Eventually, Wolfe decided to film a documentary on schizophrenia and knew Swan should be his main character. Thanks to Google, in the early 2000s he traced Swan back to Adobe Books; McKinley answered and said, “Do you want to talk to him? He’s right here.” Swan agreed, and Wolfe arrived. He was shocked to see his old friend after all these years, plagued with paranoia and fixing up a sleeping bag on Adobe’s black-and-white tiled floor to sleep. 

“I am schizophrenic. I am a thousand different characters. I have claimed to be God, Jesus, Buddha and Napoleon and backed it up and proved it,” Swan says in the documentary.  

The voices in Swan’s head tortured him; Swan said the government tracked him, and he fretted because the voices plotted to kill his pigeons. 

Over the years, Swan’s sister Catherine visited him multiple times and received his newsletter by fax. He’d show up randomly at her home in South Dakota at times, muttering that the CIA wanted to murder him, but would add that it was okay, because the local police department and half the FBI were on his side. That wouldn’t save his children, though, whom he feared that his enemies targeted to get to him. 

And, at times, the schizophrenia rendered him confused about his children. When Casey visited in the early 2000s, he said, Swan demanded he show his identification; he denied his son’s hug, but relented to a handshake. Casey visited again in 2009, and stopped after that. 

“We had some frank conversations that were hard to hear. I asked him if he loved us kids, and he said ‘no.’ I let go. Sometimes I think maybe I shouldn’t have,” Casey said. “I wonder if, in Heaven, he’s schizophrenic. It’d be cool if he wasn’t.”

It hurt Krissa, too. After the separation, she enjoyed a week with him in Chicago when she was 9. She met up with him again in San Francisco at 21, and had a good, lucid conversation, “and he’d flip a switch.” He said never to contact him again; “They” would try to get to him by coming for his daughter. She wouldn’t again until he got sick around 2018. 

“As I was an adult, I started to understand that, in his own mind, he’s been protecting us his whole life by staying on the street and staying away from me,” said Krissa, who is now 53 and a doctor on a Native American reservation in Wisconsin. 

The Swan Dive

In recent years, rumors circulated among concerned neighbors that Swan had died. He hadn’t, but he did end up in the hospital in around 2018 due to sepsis, an intense bodily response to an infection.  

Catherine and his ex-wife alerted his daughter Krissa, who hadn’t seen him since she was 21. She spoke with him and said he sounded lucid. The father and daughter exchanged childhood stories, and then Swan became paranoid that the police were tracing the call. 

Eventually he was discharged, and Krissa ensured her contact information was passed on to healthcare workers. She sent him sleeping bags and food through a sword-wielding Mission friend, Kenshin Shimayama. Swan’s legs were in poor shape, and he was again on the streets in 2019.

Later, Swan finally accepted a placement at a V.A. apartment in San Francisco. In October 2021, he fell and was found two days later by his social worker. Swan was transferred to the hospital, and Krissa and Charles flew out to see him. Charles joked that the San Francisco pigeons would hear about their arrival and swarm them, thinking Swan’s kids were “taking over the family business.” 

They spent a few days with him, and Swan’s health improved. Each child fed and talked with their father, and showed him pictures of their children. Krissa planned a trip to visit in December, but omicron prevented it. They’d phone often, and he was the most lucid he’d been in 40 years, Krissa said. 

His health took a turn for the worse at the end of January, 2022, and persisted. In February, Krissa Facetimed him in his new nursing home, telling him if he wanted to die and become a star, he could, and she’d see him in the sky. “Okay,” he replied peacefully. The doctor left them alone, and Krissa sang the lullaby he wrote for her and her siblings over and over until he fell asleep. He died two days later. 

“I got my father back, even if it was for just a short time. He got himself back, and he was able to be sort of forgiven,” Krissa said. “I’d say, ‘I miss you, Dad. I love you.’ He’d say, ‘I miss you, Krissa. I love you.’”

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REPORTER. Annika Hom is our inequality reporter through our partnership with Report for America. Annika was born and raised in the Bay Area. She previously interned at SF Weekly and the Boston Globe where she focused on local news and immigration. She is a proud Chinese and Filipina American. She has a twin brother that (contrary to soap opera tropes) is not evil.

Follow her on Twitter at @AnnikaHom.

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  1. Swan was a beauty. What did happen to the Red Man? I met himin the early 90’s. I was wearing red shoes, pants,top, jacket, everything. He asked me if I smoked. I said no. He replied, “You smoke love.”

  2. Rest in Peace / Rest in Power
    John and “El Diablo” were the two people who defined 16th Street for me as a teen and young adult in the 1980’s hanging out at the Roxie and Cafe Picaro before it became a tapas bar.

  3. I always looked forward to Swan’s daily insight. It told so much about our city and sometimes made sure we were listening to the birds. On his sharp nights, engaging him in conversation was enthralling, other times it was confusing. Thank you ML for answering the question – what happened to….our street poet Swan.

  4. His blue VW bug (not a bus) was his haven. They took that away and then banned feeding pigeons leaving Swan alone on the street, his once handsome face and tall body beginning to deteriorate. God Bless you Swan and your family.

  5. The story made me cry I didn’t know the man I live in the Washington DC area but it shows that behind the illness there was a brilliant guy and a sensitive guy. Something used to be done about the homeless. Most of them are mentally ill I think and they need help people shouldn’t just walk by them they should contact the mayor to elect the officials to get the people off the street they need help immediately

  6. Like many others, I saw him for decades in the Mission, handing out his surreal tightly-worded daily “newsletter”, and as with ‘Red Man’, knew nothing about him.
    How astonishing that he was once an award-winning journalist, had family who loved him. I recall Andrew’s kindness to him at Adobe Books, and to poet Jack Micheline who made the store a second home. Both Swan and Red Man were haunted by terrible thoughts of the potential for evil in those around them, and within themselves. In a sense they were mad prophets whose mental illness and its incumbent suffering bore seeds of a truth which again and again they felt driven to express. Blessings to John “Swan” Ratliff and his devoted children.

  7. The last time I saw Swan was during the first year of the lockdown, 2020. I had worried about him because Adobe books was gone: where was he living? But I ran into him at the bus stop on 16th and Valencia. I asked him where he was sleeping now, and he said right there at the bus stop. I gave him all the money in my wallet (which wasn’t much) and he gave me his latest writing — he was a very good writer! After that, whenever I passed the bus stop I looked for him, but didn’t see him…It’s remarkable that he made it to 81! Rest in peace, Swan.

  8. Beautifully done story/tribute soaked in pathos. I bought his manifestos from him at Adobe anytime I saw him, and talked with him when he was willing and able. I’m grateful to learn his life story here. RIP Swan.

  9. Thanks for your hard work in capturing his humanity. The work that you and Roger Wolfe have done to shine a light on schizophrenia and this family will change the way many view homelessness, including me. Thanks! May he RIP.

  10. I woke up Feb 10 wondering about John, googled, and found this article and word of his death. We were friends, conspirators, writers, adventurers, (black panther and red Fox) together from 3rd grade to 7th grade in NH. At times we were enemies, at times, twin souls. Since then, a visit when we were teenagers, occasional correspondence, one brief meeting in the 70’s, when I lent him (and so lost)my collection of all his letters to me for his projected
    autobiography. This article, Wolfe’s film,
    a visit with Catherine 20 yrs ago, memories—sad, funny, crazy, brilliant, amazing—how to sum up or understand this mysterious beautiful life?

    1. Norma, I’m delighted to read your comment, to know you were keeping track of John. You were a key figure in both our lives. I remember you were the leader of the pack. And introduced us to birding and Sammy Davis Jr.

  11. Dearest Annika, Thank you for this incredible story of John, “Swan” our “Bird Man.” I have many of his writings. He was a part of our family and community! Every Thursday he would join us, SF Night Ministry at our outdoor Open Cathedral – a Worship Service and community gathering every Thursday at 5:30 at the Bart Plaza on 16th and Mission. We are still gathering every Thursday and I have often wondered if John had passed on. I loved him very much as many of us have through the years and his being and his brilliance will forever be a shining star in our hearts and lives! I send all of my love and deep condolences to John’s children, his sister and all who loved him. You made a difference in our lives our Bird Man, brother – with my deepest gratitude – your friend, Rev. Monique

  12. Stories like this are why I love Mission Local. Swan epitomized the 16th St. of the 1990s, when I moved to SF. (In that era he was featured in a book called “16th St.: Faces in the Mission” by Bert Katz, of Katz Bagels) I always knew him as a gentle and expressive man. Fantastic profile- thank you so much for letting me know more about him. I will have to watch the documentary. Glad to know he died indoors, with dignity and contact with his kids.

  13. R.I.P. Legend.
    Good to know more of his story. He could be a bit of a prickly pear, but he was our prickly pear.

  14. I’m heartbroken. I’ve been riding BART daily since 1997 and have seen this man quite often. I knew his story, and I knew that he was a gentle man. Peace be with you, John. May you rest.

  15. Didn’t Swan title his scrawlings “The Kanarkly Review?”

    And what of the Mission’s Red Man? We were sure that he was having an affair with the Mission White Lady and that they were going to have pink children.

  16. I would like for those who knew John as a street person to see what he looked like as a young professional with his children. Try it to post a pictures, knowing it may not work.
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  17. Very nice, Annika. It was a huge job, all those interviews, so much writing. Well done. Bravo!

  18. Thank you Anika,

    Who knew.

    What a wonderful story.

    I have a few of his poems somewhere and I pick up debris in Clarion Alley under his murals.

    Now where are those poems?

    gonna frame em

    h.

  19. A sad day for the pigeons on 16th street. I’ve known him for over thirty years but really knew nothing about him. Thanks Annika. You got one of the Mission’s most enduring, and wondrous, characters (there were/are a lot of them)