BY SUSAN VAN CLEAF
Delano Public Schools Wednesday, May 23, held a big bash in honor of Dr. John Sweet, who was about to retire after a five-year career as the Delano Superintendent of Schools. But the event wasn’t a roast.
School Board Chair Amy Johnson told all the speakers to be kind to Sweet. This directive threw a monkey wrench into his speech, because he was fully prepared to roast everyone back.
Instead, the event, held at the Delano American Legion, turned into conversations about what everyone had learned from Sweet and vice versa.
One speaker quoted some Sweet wisdom, "Unlike your mouth, your ears will never get you into trouble."
Prior to his talk, Sweet was asked what advice he had for people who follow. He said he didn’t have any. He could only talk about what he has learned, and he has learned several things.
First: "Be patient."
Second: "Realize that you are put where you are for a reason. You probably won’t realize what it is until it’s over."
Third, to teachers: "Teach all of the children as if they are your own."
Fourth, to others: "Be involved in your community."
Sweet, who is a Viet Nam war veteran, started his farewell talk by expressing his affection for military veterans. "The real heroes aren’t here any more," he said.
He also said he "was enamored" of Delano resident Walter Grotz, who was a prisoner of the Germans during World War II. Sweet said he was amazed by Grotz’s talent for working with mechanical devices, like an old Delano Schools pendulum clock.
After Sweet spoke, Grotz took the microphone and said Sweet "cares for veterans." Sweet was responsible for Grotz talking publicly about his war experiences for the first time in 50 years. After he came back from World War II nobody had asked him what he had done during the war. "If you don’t ask, I don’t tell," Grotz said.
"You’re an asset to the community," he said to Sweet. "I hope you stay here for a long time."
Delano teacher Gwen Briesemeister also talked about Sweet’s commitment to veterans. She described how he "planted" an idea with her video students five years ago. He asked if they would talk with veterans to get their stories before they were gone.
The video students learned how to interview people on camera and edit the results. Briesemeister circulated widely the resulting video of 10 World War II veterans describing their experiences. The project made "a life-long impact" on the students, who now are high school freshmen, she said.
Former School Board Chairs Howard Glas and Becky Schaust both talked about the difficulty Delano Public Schools encountered while seeking a new superintendent of schools in 2007, the year Sweet acquired the title. Both Schaust and Glas were not impressed with the candidates that went through interviews with the board.
Schaust said Sweet had not applied for the job at that point. She heard about him from her sister in Rockford. He was amongst the applicants for superintendent of Rockford Public Schools, and his sister called him a "financial genius." After Rockford Schools selected someone else, Schaust called Sweet and asked him to apply to Delano Schools.
"He is incredibly well-versed in school financing," she said. "I learned more about school finances from John Sweet. He is a tireless worker. He cares about all of us."
Glas was School Board Chair during the superintendent search process that ended up in hiring of Sweet. The search committee talked with numerous people in Madison, S.D. where Sweet was superintendent. They all gave glowing reports. Glas wasn’t certain whether the reports were true or whether "they really wanted to get rid of the guy."
Glas surmised that many quality superintendent candidates are scared away from Delano Public Schools because its budget is in the lowest quartile of Minnesota public schools. But this didn’t scare away Sweet.
"He chose to come and make Delano better," Glas said. "He never rested on his laurels. He continued to grow."
Sweet said he received the phone call about the Delano superintendent position the morning of a historic day for him. He had been working for 12 years to get a new school for the Madison School District, and the ground breaking was set to happen that afternoon. It was then that Sweet knew his mission in Madison was finished.
Matt Schoen, who is succeeding Sweet as superintendent of schools said, "John doesn’t say much, but when he does, he says a lot…. He is a person in full service…. He cares so deeply, not only about students, but also about the community."
Schoen added that Sweet used caring and tact to work through "the most difficult situations in human existence."