John F. Sweers

Industrial Engineering
Class of 1946, BS

During the Cold War, Jack Sweers was retrofitting Raytheon’s Hawk Missile systems. By the end of his working career, the industrial engineer (IE) was ensuring that the highly touted Gap Stores maintained a complete inventory of its clothing stock in its hundreds of U.S. stores.

The early stages of his professional life also witnessed the introduction of the computer, a dinosaur by today’s standards. And when it was placed in his office, Mr. Sweers overcame many technical challenges and became one of the first members of management in the country to determine how to use a computer for inventory needs.

Mr. Sweers has led a versatile career as an IE, a profession he more or less stumbled upon. After attending St. Bernard, a boarding school in Cullman, Alabama, he returned to his parents’ home in Chicago to help care for an ailing aunt. At the same time, he went to work for the Western Electric Company. His boss was a Virginia Tech IE graduate, and he encouraged the high school graduate to pursue a similar line of work.

Mr. Sweers was accepted as a Hokie, entering as a member of the Class of 1946. He was exempt from the military at that time because of a heart murmur. Due to the war, he had a very small graduating class — about four or five as he recalls. But the small class made the male-female ratio unusually good for him at what was then a predominantly all-male military school. He met and fell in love with Judy Law, also a Virginia Tech student. Three months after his graduation, the two wed and today have a marriage that continues to go strong after 54 years.

During the early stages of his career, Mr. Sweers moved around a number of times, starting as an IE for Doubleday & Co. When he left this company, he was in charge of production control. But it was in his next job that his career started to soar in the management side. In 1957, he joined P.H. Glatfelter, a paper industry. Glatfelter was the company that presented Mr. Sweers with his first computer, a rare item in those days. Inexperienced in its capabilities, he taught himself how to use the IBM 450 and was soon keeping the inventory figures. As he recalls, the “huge thing” had “no memory” so he had to reconfigure some of its hard drive. He would later use the knowledge he derived from this job to continue to excel in management positions.

For a brief stint, he worked at the Fitchburg Paper Company where he met fellow IE graduate John Grado, also a member of the Academy of Engineering Excellence, for whom the industrial and systems engineering department is now named.

He moved from the paper industry to Raytheon in 1960 where he met yet another distinguished engineering graduate, Tom Phillips, who would become the CEO. It was a critical time in the Cold War era and Mr. Sweers found himself traveling around the world, making sure that the procedure he developed to retrofit the Hawk Missiles was followed. One of the most prominent of these Hawk Missiles was the Raytheon projectile located in Florida that was aimed at Cuba during the Missile Crisis.

After three years, Mr. Sweers joined Western Publishing where he eventually became the vice president of distribution and assembly operations. Among its products, Western printed the Golden Books, puzzles, playing cards, and boxed games. He spent 16 years with the company until Mattel Toys bought the publishing house.

He shopped around for a new employer, and soon settled on The Gap Stores, where he would remain until his retirement in 1987. In his position as corporate vice president for operations, he contracted with clothing manufacturers from around the world to supply The Gap Stores. He describes the flow of goods from places like Hong Kong and India as a huge logistical problem, and also one that merited a lot of quality control effort. His work allowed him to travel around the world, wherever clothing manufacturers were located.

The advantage of being an IE, says Mr. Sweers, is the flexibility in the choice of industrial jobs.

During his career, Mr. Sweers was also active with the Institute of Industrial Engineers (IIE). His ascent in the organization culminated in his presidency in 1976 and 1977. Afterwards, he served on its Board of Directors for seven years, and he was named a fellow of the institute.

He served as a member of the Board of Directors of the Salvation Army; of the Kiwanis and Rotary Clubs; of the Industrial Development Boards of Fayetteville, North Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia; and as a member and an officer of the Chamber of Commerce of Hanover, Pennsylvania, and Racine, Wisconsin. He was a member of the Virginia Tech Industrial and Systems Engineering Advisory Board, and he has received the ISE’s Marvin Agee Distinguished Alumni Award. He is also in Virginia Tech’s Ut Prosim Society.

Class of: 1946
Year Inducted into Academy: 2001

John F. Sweers