New book spotlights Lt. Donn Sweet ’64
Donn Sweet '64 was a political science major with a wicked sense of humor and law school ambitions. He loved his family, his friends and his car, "Patti Porsche." When he died too young, he left behind a little sister whose world came crashing down.
For decades, Evelyn Sweet-Hurd treasured, but would not read, the letters her brother sent home from Vietnam. It was just too painful. When her daughter wistfully remarked that she wished she could have known her uncle, Sweet-Hurd realized that she did not want to leave her brother's story untold. So she opened the battered box of letters and attempted to make sense of what seemed a senseless loss.
Now, almost exactly 40 years after his death, Donn Sweet is being remembered by many fellow alumni who are reading the resulting poignant book. Called "His Name Was Donn," Sweet-Hurd's self-published book is a record of her brother's correspondence with their mother and the author's own reactions as she read the letters decades after they were penned. From the "Pandora's box," as she refers to it, tumbled memories, emotions and a glimpse into a memorable Maroon.
"It brought back many memories, some of which should not be in print," chuckles Bob Dyer '65, who, like several alumni, got a copy of the book. He and Sweet were best friends at Cave Spring High School in Roanoke County, and he remembers Sweet as gregarious and unpretentious. "He was quite an interesting fellow and a really smart kid," says Dyer, who read the whole book in one day. Mostly, Dyer remembers Sweet's personality and sense of humor and recalls, "He was always playing practical jokes."
Dyer and Sweet both married young, and Sweet served as Dyer's best man. Sweet, who began college at Duke University, transferred to Roanoke College in his sophomore year in order to be with his young wife, who was a nursing student in Roanoke at the time. After graduating, Sweet took classes at the University of Virginia in preparation for graduate school. He was working as an independent insurance agent when he was drafted into the army. His marriage faltered and, before he left for Vietnam, he and his wife divorced.
In July 1968, just four years after graduating, Sweet was killed in Vietnam during a mortar attack. He was 26 years old. Drafted by the army in 1967, Sweet had been serving for 11 months and was just weeks away from discharge when he died.
It was not until Dyer read the book that he realized his friend was so close to being discharged. "I was surprised at how close he was to coming home. It was sad to read of how he was anticipating law school," he says.
Nancy Manning, a retired elementary school principal and cousin of Dyer's, also attended Cave Spring High School with Sweet. Though not personally acquainted with him, she says, "Lots of people knew who he was because he always had that smile and would joke around." Manning heard of the book from a high school classmate who had attended a book-signing event. She bought several copies and gave them out to friends. One made a big impact on Carolyn Walter '97, director of development research at Roanoke.
"I was incredibly sad when I read it, even though I didn't know him," says Walter, who attended Cave Spring about the same time as Sweet. Walter is impressed that he kept his sense of humor even though he was in Vietnam, and she is amused by his remarks about his prized car.
Manning is especially touched by Sweet's relationship with his mother and says, "I loved that the book showed his love and respect for his mom." Sweet addressed his mother playfully, but lovingly, and showed great appreciation for her letters and for the help she gave him in keeping his affairs in order while he was in Vietnam.
Marion Sweet, 97, now lives with Sweet-Hurd near Atlanta, and, according to the author, is enjoying the attention the book is receiving. Sweet-Hurd has been amazed by it and says her book has been the subject of classes and focused discussions at several Georgia colleges and universities, including the Savannah College of Art and Design, Piedmont College in Demorest and Georgia Southern University in Statesboro.
Compared to the political atmosphere in her day, the author says, "colleges are so quiet now." At the time her brother was serving in Vietnam, Sweet-Hurd was a student at Duke University. "Campuses were torn apart," she says. She recalls that she found the war protests very difficult to deal with. The author hopes her book will spark meaningful discussions among students because she has been disturbed at the lack of "uproar" over the deaths of U.S. soldiers in Iraq.
Sweet-Hurd says she approached this project with trepidation, but she is happy she took it on. Although she had idolized her big brother, she says, "For years, I put as much as I could in a vault. [In writing the book] I rediscovered him myself. It was great fun." When asked what her brother would have thought about all the publicity, she says without hesitation, "He would have loved every bit of it."