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John Sweeney

John Sweeney ARC's First Federal Co-Chairman

The Appalachian Regional Commission was established by the U.S. Congress in 1965 to support economic and social development in the Appalachian Region. The Commission is a unique partnership composed of the governors of the 13 Appalachian states and a presidential appointee representing the federal government.

Many people have contributed to the work and accomplishments of ARC since its creation in 1965, but only one, John Sweeney, was the sine qua non ("without which not") of this special effort to bring better lives to the people of the Appalachian Region. The Appalachian Regional Development Act was designed by him, sold to Congress by him (albeit with the aid of Lyndon Johnson's landslide victory of 1964) and brought to administrative life under his direction. It was my great pleasure to work for him and succeed him at ARC. More than 30 years later, I still marvel at his unique blend of good judgment, Irish wit, disarming candor, and unabashed political agility.

John learned politics in Michigan, working for Governor G. Mennen "Soapy" Williams, before migrating to Washington to serve on the staff of the Senate Labor Committee chaired by Senator Pat McNamara of Michigan. During his time with the labor committee, he went to George Washington University Law School. In 1963 he left the Hill to staff an ad hoc federal-state commission appointed by President Kennedy, the President's Appalachian Regional Commission, which was chaired by Undersecretary of Commerce Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr. In that position John melded together diverse theories about development, the political agendas of the Region's governors, and the competing interests and claims of various federal agencies and officials. The result was a proposal for the Appalachian Regional Development Act, which surfaced in 1964 and was passed in March 1965, after President Johnson's victory produced a large Democratic majority in Congress.

While the art of compromise was one of John's most prominent skills, he was first and foremost a leader. He was committed to the strategies that were incorporated in the Appalachian Regional Development Act—improving access and competitiveness with the Appalachian highway system, providing educational opportunities and health care, dealing with environmental problems, developing governmental capacity to support development efforts, and concentrating investments for maximum impact. He articulated these strategies in a clear and consistent manner to diverse audiences, with positive effects for the program.

In 1967 John left ARC to become first assistant secretary for public affairs in the newly created Department of Transportation. In this role he was again part of bringing a new government institution to life. He became a principal architect of federal railroad policy and moved on to a distinguished career in the railroad industry.

This recitation of his skills and accomplishments does not capture the very special character of the man. He was Irish to the core, with a peculiar blend of toughness, sentimentality, generosity, loyalty, and humor. Those who had the privilege of working with John were much the better for it.

By Joe W. "Pat" Fleming II

From the Appalachian Regional Commission web site.

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