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John W. Sweetland, the eponym of the Gayle Morris Sweetland Center for Writing, spent this past week visiting his alma mater, the University of Michigan, with his wife, Cordelia Bacher, to give lectures, meet with students, attend campus events and enjoy Ann Arbor eateries.

With a $5 million endowment from Sweetland, the University was able to launch its first-ever stand-alone writing center in 1997. Sweetland regularly visits the University to engage with the students about their experiences in the writing center and at the University. On his visit this past Thursday, Sweetland and students in the peer writing program and writing minor gathered in North Quad Residence Hall to share their writing and discuss the opportunities and resources provided to students by the center.

Business junior and peer writing consultant Sita Subramanian noted how the Sweetland peer writing center has allowed her to keep up with her writing skills and learn about the subject.

“I thought that joining the writing center would help writing remain an integral part of my college experience. I think it’s made me more aware of the different types of expression there (are) out there,” Subramanian said.

Sweetland shared his own layered history and his experiences in writing and business. Born in Detroit in 1933, he originally planned to become a minister like his father. However, after coming to the University, he decided he was not sure what he wanted to do, and ultimately dropped out of school his junior year. He was drafted into the army during the Korean War, and, at 22, he became a commanding officer in Guam.

“While I was on Guam, I took my first economics course,” Sweetland said. “I came back to Michigan quite a different man … I came back with the intention of completing my undergraduate degree but this time in economics. … (Then) kind of falling in love with the subject, I decided I wanted to go to graduate school.”  

Sweetland has held a variety of titles, including deputy mayor of Detroit in 1968, president of an international finance corporation and army officer. Throughout his wide-ranging career, writing has been a consistent presence in his life, from essays in his high school days to reports, proposals and analyses at the corporate level.

His vision of the writing center is one that teaches students how to arrange their thoughts on paper in a coherent manner. He stressed the importance of writing in all disciplines.

“I’ve never been in a place where writing is not required,” Sweetland said. “I look at what is available to us in terms of recorded history and how would we know all that if we didn’t write it. A lot of students have problems with (writing). I see that in business. They are very few people who are adept at putting their thoughts on paper in a cogent and inviting way.”

Anne Gere, the director of the writing center, helped organize Sweetland’s visit with the writing students and has hope the center makes learning how to write a part of the undergraduate experience, regardless of a student’s major or career interest.

“John Sweetland’s generous gift enables Sweetland to support the development of student writers at every level, from the directed self-placement essay as first-years matriculate to support for graduate students writing dissertations,” Gere said.

The nationally acclaimed writing center is now involved in a joint project with the University of Southern California to incorporate writing into the sciences.

“(Gere) has taken the center to new heights,” Sweetland said. “(This project) is so innovative and can be so life changing especially for women. In my view, anything we can do to level the playing field in terms of writing capabilities is good for everybody, and I think we are doing that.”

The center is named after the benefactor’s late wife, Gayle Morris, who owned and published U. Magazine until she died of breast cancer in 1996.

“Gayle was the most talented writer I’d ever met,” Sweetland said. “She handled all the corporate relations for the largest savings and loans corporation (at the time) … she was such a good communicator.”

Sweetland is currently working on a book about his life, which will be filled with facts and stories.

Sweetland’s current wife, Cordelia Bacher, an L.A. school director, attested to Sweetland’s passion for writing. 

“He starts at 5:30 in the morning,” Bacher said. “He may have five different versions to one chapter. I mean, he’s just constantly writing.”

Sweetland, who is currently working on a book about his life, ended his visit urging students to treasure their time at the University.

“So many students take for granted the richness of this place,” Sweetland said. “A lot of students look back and wish they had spent more time. Don’t wish in the future, do it now. Spend the time. It sounds like preaching, (but) absorb everything you possibly can about this place because you’ll never get an opportunity like this in your life (again).”

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