Getting the job done with Sonny Sweet
by Sherrie Norris
The highly decorated retired Army colonel served his country for nearly 31 years -- and during five armed conflicts -- before retiring in 1992.
More recently, for 15 years as director of the local Red Cross, he helped countless people through major disasters.
Sweet has stood up against powerful foes in his lifetime, but his latest encounter -- with lung cancer -- has found him fighting harder than ever before.
"The courage and dignity accompanied by humor and grace that Sonny has shown in the face of this diagnosis, and fairly excruciating treatment, have vividly reminded me of why he is the bravest and finest man I've ever known," said his wife, Bricca Sweet.
If Sweet ever wondered about his value to the High Country, hopefully his questions were answered last Monday during the eighth annual Memorial Day Ceremony at Boone Mall.
"I was completely overwhelmed," he said. "I'm not one to beat my chest, but my good buddy George (Brudzinksi, event coordinator) really got me this time."
Sweet received numerous honors and awards on May 26 for his service to his country and community -- from the Military Officers Association of America, Kiwanis of Boone, Blue Ridge Chapter of the American Red Cross, Blood, Sweat and Gears Inc., the town of Boone and the Boone Area Chamber of Commerce.
Sonny has never wanted a fuss made over him, said Jim Street, Red Cross chapter chairman, on Monday.
"He was about getting a job done, meeting needs and reminding others that help can't wait. He knew how to get people on board and how to work with and care for volunteers," Street said.
Dan Meyer, president and CEO of the Boone Area Chamber of Commerce, said about Sweet, "He is among those who have given -- and given often -- to enhance our region's quality of life and simply to make life better for those in the Boone area."
Soon after Sweet arrived in the area, the late Bud Altmayer described him as "a good fit."
When Sweet retired from the Red Cross, Altmayer said, "Someone else will come in and do a good job, but nobody can take his place."
After Sweet's military retreat, and pending his wife's retirement as an Army lieutenant colonel, they planned to move their family to the North Carolina mountains, where Sweet lived as a child.
In California at the time, the couple had purchased property in Ashe County and began perusing local newspapers to become familiar with the area.
"I was in the international airport in San Francisco," Sweet said, "reading The Mountain Times, when I saw a front page story about Watauga County needing a Red Cross director."
Sweet called Boone from an airport payphone and made arrangements for an interview.
The rest is history.
In the beginning
Born Worth Alfred Sweet Jr. in Concord, Sonny's family moved to Nathan's Creek in 1941 when he was just a toddler. His father, who died in 2010, was a Methodist minister for 56 years, during which time he pastored seven Ashe County churches while also attending Appalachian State Teacher's College full time.
"He was quite an athlete and had quite a career at App," Sweet said. "He was also named Mr. Appalachian in the 1940s. When I first came (back) to Boone, I became acquainted with some of his teammates."
"Growing up (with my brother)," Sweet said, "my dad's ministry moved us around quite a bit. I often say we lived in all of North Carolina and half of Georgia."
His mother, Rachel Williams Sweet, who died in 1993, was a schoolteacher, also known for her vegetable soup that sold at the Jefferson Farmers' Market.
Sweet graduated with the class of 1957 from Boyden High School in Salisbury and attended UNC Chapel Hill, where he ran track and cross-country. He dropped out during his sophomore year and went to work in a cotton mill in Ramseur. After a year, he was drafted into the Army.
In the meantime, his father brought three children to the United States from Indonesia and raised them as his own.
"I always considered them my brothers and sister," Sonny said. "We are still very close today."
His stepmother, Betty Benson Sweet, who still lives in Asheville, is a great woman and was his mother's best friend, he said.
"On my mother's death bad, she told dad that's who she wanted him to marry -- and he did," Sweet said.
Drafted in 1961 during the Berlin Crisis, Sweet soon became a sergeant in U.S. Army Intelligence and Security and was selected for Officer Candidate School in November 1963, "the week before President Kennedy was assassinated," he said.
He graduated the following May as a second lieutenant in Army Intelligence and Security.
His rose through the ranks quickly, leading troops from Vietnam through Desert Storm and accruing a collection of awards and honors along the way -- from the Good Conduct Medal to the Meritorious Service Medal with four oak leaf clusters.
Serving as liasion with the Japanese defense force, Sweet was the first American recipient of the Japanese Meritorious Service Medal, awarded by Japanese Self-Defense Force.
"I don't know how that happened," he said, with a laugh.
He was also inducted into Infantry Officer Candidate School Hall of Fame.
Through his military service, Sweet received his bachelor's degree at the University of Maryland and his master's degree at Kansas State University, with other advanced courses to his credit.
Bricca Sweet is also retired as a military intelligence lieutenant colonel; their oldest son, Jon, is a colonel in the Army's Military Intelligence Corps, serving in Germany since July 2012.
A new chapter
When Sweet first came to Boone, he said, "I really didn't know a soul here and hadn't been to Boone since my father graduated in '46."
He set a goal to meet two new people every day.
"Sooner or later, you get to know a lot of people, that way," he said.
Days after Sweet assumed the Red Cross leadership, a large fire occurred at Blowing Rock Hospital.
"My radio was tuned to WATA when the breaking news was announced," he said. "I didn't even know where Blowing Rock Hospital was, but I knew I had to do something, so I went to my new office. Brenda Binning and Lisa Shoun came running in and grabbing up supplies and suggested I start calling in volunteers, so I did."
That fire taught him a few things, he said, adding, "I learned pretty fast that I needed to get familiar with local geography."
A call from the Red Cross's regional office soon afterward informed Sweet that his chapter was in danger of losing its charter. "I didn't know what the heck a charter was," he said. "I had only been there about three months."
For the next year, Sweet said, his goal was to dig the organization out of a hole -- and he did it, although often wondering if he would get a check.
Sweet eventually brought the chapter to the top. At one time, his volunteer count was 700 and he promoted record-breaking blood drives at Watauga High School and Appalachian State University.
He was also a driving force behind a bicycle ride to benefit the Red Cross, which eventually grew into the internationally known Blood, Sweat and Gears.
"It became a very popular ride and a godsend for the Red Cross," he said.
He also dealt with many difficult situations, including the 1996 Summit Woods Apartments fire that claimed the life of young Jeremy Fisher and left 16 people homeless.
"It was devastating, especially to see Jeremy's parents lose their only child," Sweet said. "The memories will never leave me."
Focused on a mission to restore hope when hope was temporarily lost was sometimes hard, Sweet said.
Among his most cherished memories include those made while delivering meals-on-wheels, something he did since 2000, until recently.
"For about 13 years, I developed a special relationship with these wonderful people who were waiting in their homes for me to bring their meals," he said. "Everyone knows I love to talk and sometimes that last meal I delivered was probably cold. No one seemed to care. It was about much more than food."
Retirement, retreats and treatments
Sweet became a "gentleman farmer" upon his most recent retirement and today still enjoys the farm, with the help of his son, who does "the heavy stuff," he said.
"We just got our garden planted and we now have 14 goats, several chickens and ducks. They're fun and help keep me going," he said.
The Sweets divide their time between their home in Watauga County and that at High Rock Lake, which he said, was acquired at about the same time of his cancer diagnosis.
"We didn't know it at the time, but it was meant to be," he said. "We love spending time there together."
Bricca loves the water, he said, adding, "but, she knows this old boy loves the mountains."
In late March, Sweet completed his sixth intense series of chemotherapy treatments after which he developed pneumonia.
"It's been a little tough," he said, but I'm encouraged by my latest report. I just want to keep going -- keep having fun and being with the people I love. Somebody else will have to put me down -- I'm not giving in or giving up."
The Sweets said they are incredibly grateful for the support of their family, friends and community, as a whole.
"We are getting absolutely wonderful care at the Seby B. Jones Cancer Center at Watauga Medical Center," Bricca said. "And we are also deeply appreciative to April Pope, Watauga County's Veterans' Services director, for being there for us."
He loves the familiar mountain saying of "taking care of our own," he said, and has always abided by the phrase.
"And, that's what I'm seeing now as the community is reaching out to me," he said, "I can't say enough about it. We still take care of our own."
Correction: Two stories, "A 'Sweet' tribute at Boone Mall' (May 27) and "Getting the
job done with Sonny Sweet" (June 1) incorrectly listed the position of
Jim Street. Street is a board member of the Blue Ridge Chapter of the
American Red Cross.