John Edward Sawyer -- Part II

Finally, in May 1970 the U.S. government's military actions in southeast Asia, especially the Cambodian incursion, resulted in protests on many campuses. The deep feelings expressed by students and faculty at Williams, shared by Jack, led to the canceling of the last two weeks of classes and the suspension or postponement of final exams. Those were the easy moves. He then organized delegations of students, faculty, and trustees to call on members of Congress to press the case for disengagement. It was characteristic of him to insist that a trustee be part of each delegation in order to demonstrate a consensus within this college community. These public crises were not easy for Jack because many of the college's constituencies were neither shy nor uncertain about offering advice. The fact that we survived as well as we did is testimony to his leadership and that of many others.

Throughout his public career Jack's leadership reflected his sense of stewardship. He was acutely aware that the institutions he led were entrusted to him for only a short time and that prior events implied both limitations and opportunities. Above all else, however, he aspired to lead a life that was useful and, in doing so here, his vision for Williams redefined this college. His multiple initiatives were all part of a larger schema. His horizon was further and his sight was clearer than most of his contemporaries. He was wise, compassionate, witty, gracious, and extraordinarily well read. He cared foremost about people and ideas. His desire to effect meaningful change and his ability to chart the clearest pathway sometimes resulted in an attention to detail that not everyone appreciated. In observing these situations, I was convinced that such micromanagement did not stem from pettiness or a need for power, but rather from an unavoidable desire to have everyone's energies coherent and focused.

Sometimes his analytical prowess could not be restrained. During CAP interviews with faculty candidates, he occasionally became so engaged with their description of the doctoral thesis that he would redesign their expositions and suggest an additional chapter or two, citing the key primary literature that ought to be consulted. Applicants' responses ranged from barely-concealed resentment to profound gratitude.

The biographical facts are these. John Edward Sawyer was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, on 5 May 1917. He attended Deerfield Academy, obtained an A.B. degree from Williams, and earned an A.M. degree from Harvard in 1941. He completed all requirements for a Ph.D. except the thesis before serving as an officer in the U.S. Navy from 1942 to 1946, assigned to the Office of Strategic Services in Washington, North Africa and Europe. He than returned to Harvard as a Junior Fellow in the Society of Fellows (1946-1949) and as an Assistant Professor (1949-1953). He was an Associate Professor at Yale University (1953-1961) before becoming President of Williams College (1961-1973). In 1974 he became Vice President of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and served as its President from 1975 until his retirement in 1987 at age 70.

His many honors included the U.S. Navy Bronze Star medal, thirteen honorary degrees, the National Academy of Sciences Public Welfare Medal, the Phi Beta Kappa Award for Distinguished Service to the Humanities, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Chairman's Award, and the Williams College Bicentennial Medal.

In June 1941 he married Anne Swift, who in 1984 was the first recipient of the college's Ephraim Williams Medal. Jack Sawyer died in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, on 7 February 1995 at age 77.

His foremost legacy is this college. His life was splendidly useful.

By Prof. J. Hodge Markgraf (Williams Class of 1952)

Markgraf, J. Hodge. "John Edward Sawyer." 8 March 1995. Williams College Faculty Meeting Minutes. Williams College Archives.