By Sherrie Norris
When he was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer in 2013, Sonny Sweet’s medical team estimated that he had no more than nine months to live. He proved them wrong in typical Sonny fashion, which surprised no one who knew him and his fighting spirit, his zest for life and his love for his family and friends. Still, with that death sentence looming over him for eight and a half more years, no one was ready to let him go.
Born Worth Alfred Sweet, Jr. in Concord on July 14, 1939, he died June 13, 2022. A hero to many, his family shared: “He slipped into his final peaceful sleep at the tranquil High Rock Lake home – his Sweet Escape – a short drive from the High Country near Lexington,” where he and his wife, Bricca Sweet, spent the majority of their last happy years together.
According to Bricca, Sonny didn’t so much “fight cancer” as “he ignored its menace” — and lived life to its fullest for those eight-plus years following the devastating diagnosis. “Years of cancer treatment so weakened him that his body simply failed his own expectations.”
Bricca shared with us that Sonny’s vital life force, decisive leadership, compassion, mentoring, radiant love, and so much more, are all far more meaningful than his inevitable death.
“Everyone who knew him – those of us who loved him, as well as acquaintances of a few moments —reveled in the brilliant vitality of his infinite zest for life,” she said. “ Sonny’s raucous laughter could fill a stadium with its peals of joy in the moment. He told entertaining stories for every occasion with utter delight. Sonny’s light was brightest when he shone it on others. He was thrilled to mentor all of us into becoming even more than we could be. He thoroughly relished helping others.”
His parents, Worth Alfred Sweet, Sr., and Rachel Williams Sweet, both now deceased, were role models for his incredible life of service, Bricca described.
His family had moved to nearby Nathan’s Creek in 1941 when Sonny was just a toddler. Her father was a Methodist minister for 56 years, during which time he pastored seven Ashe County churches, while also enrolled as a fulltime student at Appalachian State Teachers College.
His mother, Rachel Williams Sweet, a schoolteacher, was also known for making delicious vegetable soup that she sold at the Jefferson Farmer’s Market.
Sweet once shared with this writer that while growing up with his brother, because of his father’s ministry, the family moved around quite frequently. He often said they lived “in all of North Carolina and half of Georgia.”
Sonny 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 of college during his sophomore year and went to work in a cotton mill in Ramseur. A year later, he was drafted into the U.S. Army.
A Decorated Military Career
Sweet’s distinguished Army career began humbly as a private at Fort Jackson, SC, in 1961, and concluded when he retired in 1992 as a highly decorated full colonel in the Army’s Military Intelligence branch, said Bricca.
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 in an earlier interview.
He graduated the following May as a second lieutenant in Army Intelligence and Security.
Sweet rose through the ranks quickly, leading troops from Vietnam through Desert Storm and accruing an assortment of awards and honors along the way — from the Good Conduct Medal to the Meritorious Service Medal with four oak leaf clusters.
Serving as liaison 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 had said, with a laugh.
He was also inducted into Infantry Officer Candidate School Hall of Fame.
Through his military career, 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.
“The Army so valued Sonny’s service that they sent him to the University of Kansas to obtain his Master’s in history, as well as to the Air War College,” Bricca recalled. “Sonny, a Vietnam combat veteran, commanded at every level through brigade, and developed training innovations that became Army-wide practices. He truly loved soldiers, and soared with the opportunities to serve them. He always said that his favorite assignment was with the 101st Airborne Division – he was so proud of his Screaming Eagles.”
Back to the Mountains
After Soony Sweet’s military retirement, and pending Bricca’s retirement as an Army lieutenant colonel, they planned to return with their children to the North Carolina mountains.
In California at the time, the couple had purchased property in Ashe County and began perusing local newspapers to become familiar with the area. Sonny told us that he was in the airport in San Francisco, reading The Mountain Times, when he saw a front page story about Watauga County needing a Red Cross director. In a call to Boone from an airport payphone, Sweet set up an interview. The rest is history.
Fifteen years later, Sonny and Bricca were settling into another phase of retirement, had decided to become farmers and were growing a garden along with goats, chickens and ducks.
In the meantime — and at about the same time of his cancer diagnosis —they bought a place at High Rock Lake.
“We didn’t know it at the time, but it was meant to be,” he said earlier. “We love spending time there together. Bricca loves the water, but she knows this old boy loves the mountains.”
According to his obituary, Sweet’s focus on selfless service continued when he came back to his beloved NC mountains as the Director of Watauga County’s Red Cross Chapter in 1995. His considerable contributions to Boone and Watauga County included leadership in Henson Chapel United Methodist Church, Boone Kiwanis, Mountaineer Ruritan, the High Country Chapter of the Military Officers Association of America (he helped start our MOAA Chapter), and Meals on Wheels. He helped initiate several continuing local events, such as Boone’s Fourth of July Parade, MOAA’s Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day celebrations, and the Blood, Sweat and Gears bicycle ride. His comprehensive disaster planning was rivalled only by his personal dedication to helping both first responders and victims across all types of catastrophic events. Sonny was overjoyed to give back to his community and to give the credit for any successes to others.
Sweet’s greatest joy emerged in his boundless love for his family. He treasured his three sons, Jonathan (Sonia), Nathan, and Brandt Sweet, and his daughter, Brianna Swartz (Joshua). He cherished his three granddaughters, Rebecca Sweet, Taylor Swartz, and Alyssa Swartz, and is also survived by his grandson, Steven Sweet. Sonny loved to laugh with his younger brother, Edward Sweet (Eileen). Sonny’s fierce love for his wife, Bricca Sweet, was unparalleled.
Sweet’s family will host a Celebration of A Hero’s Life on what would have been Sonny’s 83rd birthday, July 14, 2022, at Appalachian State’s Grandview Ballroom, 135 Jack Branch Drive, Boone, 10 am to 12 noon. Those attending are asked to use the River Street parking garage
The family invites his many friends, colleagues and the community in general to help them celebrate his life by wearing bright colors and come prepared (if so moved) “to briefly share a funny story or fond memory during these bright and magical moments honoring Sonny’s sheer happiness and radiant love.”
“Be sure to smile when you think of Sonny Sweet, and reach your hand with love, kindness, and help to another human being. Hold dear what an honor it is to have known and shared love with such an incredible man!”
Because Sonny wanted to persist in helping others — once he became ill and he hoped to continue helping beyond his own death — his family requests that, rather than flowers, that donations be made to Western Youth Network’s Sonny Sweet Scholarship Fund (WYN’s SSSF) at 155 WYN Way, Boone, NC 28607 (https://donorbox.org/wyn_online_donation).
A Community Hero and Friend to Many
George Brudzinski was likely Sweet’s closest friend during their time together in Boone; Brudzinski reminisced with us about his comrade and his many accomplishments, many of which have been mentioned above.
Brudzinski also reflected upon the numerous community awards Sweet received, which included: Kiwanis Club’s Zeller Award, Watauga County Red Cross Community Service Award, the establishment of the Sonny Sweet Honorary Grant in conjunction with Blood, Sweat and Gears, and in 2014, the Ben Suttle Award for Community Service and Volunteerism through the Boone Area Chamber of Commerce.
“Sonny was my mentor,” said Brudzinski. “He believed, and instilled in me, his motto, that if something needed to be done, just do it. Help can’t wait.”
Brudzinski was board chair of the Red Cross during Sweet’s rein and saw him in action many times over. “He played a fine line between breaking rules when it came to helping someone in need. ‘Help them first, then explain your actions later,’ Sonny said. “He had the ability to just walk into a business and the first question asked was, ’How much do you need, Sonny?’ Everyone knew he was always doing the right thing.”
Brudzinski worked with Sweet in every aforementioned local organization. “And he never failed to uphold and demonstrate his morale character or ‘never say no’ attitude when he was asked to help. He was a great man and friend, and will be dearly missed.”
Carolynn Johnson, Captain of Investigations for Watauga County Sheriff’s Office, was a high school senior in 1998 when she accepted an internship with Sweet.
“How does one describe the truly incredible soul that Sonny Sweet was? I’m not sure that I can,” she said when asked to comment.
“When he started as the Director of the Watauga County Chapter of the American Red Cross, the chapter was in danger of losing its charter. Not only did Sonny keep it from losing its charter, he made it one of the most productive chapters of the American Red Cross. Sonny created the largest volunteer basis the Red Cross has seen, with over 700 members.”
Johnson described Sweet as “one of the smartest, most motivated, amazing souls I have ever met. He was a man who dearly loved his wife Bricca, his children and grandchildren, and was beyond proud of them.”
Example after example came to her mind as she shared his accomplishments with Red Cross. “He came up with the idea to do a fundraiser in honor of Jeremy Fisher, who lost his life in a fire. He also later started a fund in honor of Russell Keene, who was a victim in New York’s 9-11 terrorist attack; both continue today to honor the deaths of these young men by supporting their family and others.”
In recalling Sweet starting what she refers to as the “now internationally known Blood, Sweat and Gears,” Johnson said that during the first year, there were many sceptics — “Many people told him it wasn’t a good idea and would go nowhere. In true Sonny fashion, he had a vision and set his mind to do it.”
Jonson’s internship turned into a part-time job opportunity that she was glad to accept, she said.
“Sonny and I were as thick as thieves and I worked with him until I started my law enforcement career in 2005,” she shared. “Sonny encouraged me to do things that I did not believe I could do. He stood behind me every step of the way. Sonny has been there for me as a role model, mentor and most importantly, a friend. I know that I would not be where I am today, the person I am today or able to conduct myself in the manner I do, without the role model that Sonny was. I cannot articulate enough the valuable life lessons I have learned from him.”
Johnson described Sweet as a man who led by example. “He was able to motivate anyone — and when he set his mind to do something, you can bet that it would be done. Sonny had an amazing ability to talk to anyone, anywhere, and get results. Sonny could speak to any group, be a valuable member of any board and was respected by all he came across. Sonny was truly the heartbeat of this community.”
Another important trait she saw in him, Johnson related, was that Sonny knew the importance of surrounding himself with great people. “He absolutely found, worked with and friended many amazing people in this community. Great people working with each other, for their community, and making the work fun. I learned from Sonny and these amazing people, how hard work, and teamwork, makes doing anything possible.”
Not only was Sweet a highly decorated retired Army Colonel, Johnson reiterated. “ I want to elaborate that Sonny was a true American hero. The things Sonny saw and did during his tours of duty are unimaginable to most of us. What I find truly remarkable, among other things about Sonny, was his ability to look at this world, smile, and say, “How can I make this better and then do what is needed to be done to make things better? Sonny was truly an inspiration to anybody whose life he touched, especially mine.”
Lynn (Norwood) Gunter also found it difficult to describe her time with the American Red Cross and Sonny Sweet.
“I had been a CPR and First Aid instructor for several years prior to Sonny becoming the Executive Director and continued afterward,” she said. “My working relationship with him began following an unexpected phone call from him. “Lynn. I want to talk to you about Carolyn’s position. She’s not in it anymore and I was wondering if you want it.” That’s when I started to lean about his uncanny ability to read people. He saw strengths in people they might not even see in themselves. And he provided tools and opportunities to overcome weaknesses without being critical. Sonny was loud and opinionated. His laugh didn’t just fill a room, it filled the whole building our office was in. Sonny was and will remain the best boss I have ever had. And he was my friend.”
Gunter will never forget the conversation they had after she discovered his love for red heads, “which included his two wives, a granddaughter and Carolynn, who he loved like his own. I grinned at him and told him that he didn’t hire me because I was capable, but rather because I was red head. He laughed and said, ‘Well, it didn’t hurt.’”
Less than two weeks after she was hired, Gunter said Sweet called her in the wee hours of the morning to meet him at the scene of an apartment fire. “I remember his compassion and heartbreak over the children that had perished in that fire. That’s something I will never forget.”
Jennifer Grubb Warren, Executive Director of Western Youth Network, said that even before she knew Sonny as a champion for children, she knew him as the faithful and tenacious director of the Red Cross.
“He led this large, trauma-responsive agency with such confidence, and he knew everyone in town, which helped him accomplish anything that he needed to do for the organization and the community,” Warren shared. “After leaving this post, I was humbled to learn that Sonny and Bricca wanted to make an impact on young people in our community. They first prioritized children through a grant with the Blood Sweat and Gears event, and later Sonny and I met to discuss his vision of establishing an endowment fund, so that more children could have access to summer camp and other therapeutic services. Sonny, of course, had a bold plan to see this fund reach at least $1 million, and I was onboard with this vision. I knew if anyone could do it, Sonny could.”
Warren continued, “We embarked on this journey together and established the Sonny Sweet Scholarship fund in 2015. Through a lot of hard work, community events and creativity from Sonny, Bricca, and all of their supporters, the fund has since grown to over $140,000 — even with 5 percent being redirected each year to provide full scholarships for local youth to participate in WYN’s summer camp program. Since establishing the fund, over 30 students have received this competitive scholarship.”
In Warren’s memory, she said, “Sonny lives prominently as a gentle, kind man with lots of spirit; a man I could elbow and crack a joke with during a meeting; a man I could sit quietly beside of in the corner of the room, away from the activity; a man who never needed words to show his love and devotion to his community — because you could see it all in the sparkle of his eyes. He will be profoundly missed, yet I’m so deeply grateful that his legacy will live on through his commitment to strengthening our community by investing in children. It’s an investment that has a generational impact.”
Glimpses of Sonny Sweet through various phases of his life as a highly decorated American hero, local celebrity and a loving family man and friend to many..