Schweitzer graduated from Michigan in both senses of the verb: in the familiar way, with a B.A. in sociology in 1961, and in the less obvious but lasting way: as a person who grew, learned, and changed during his undergraduate years.
“I came from a working-class family in Battle Creek—a small city on the west side of the state. I’d been exposed to racial diversity there, but not socioeconomic diversity. It really opened my eyes to the world, and my classwork did the same.”
Schweitzer had started out pre-med, thinking he’d become a doctor. “But it didn’t take me too long to realize my head wasn’t in the hard sciences,” he says. “I took everything that interested me—math, English. I learned from all of it.”
Schweitzer applied his education to careers at big companies such as General Foods and Burger King, and eventually summited as Chief Executive Officer at the advertising firm J. Walter Thompson. He’s a man who knows something about success, and that knowledge inspired him to support the University of Michigan’s promising young students through scholarships.
“I want to reach kids from Escanaba, Petoskey, Holland, Kalamazoo,” he says, “kids for whom being at Michigan would open new worlds.“
He remembers one scholarship student from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in particular. “I met him as a freshman—he was mild and meek. When I saw him a year later he’d grown a long beard—something serious had happened to him. And I thought, uh-oh. He went on and became a big programmer out at Microsoft. He went beyond what I did. He experimented and tested himself, and his experience here helped him succeed.”
It’s a simple message: Help others. Give back. And, for Schweitzer, it carries a heightened significance. ”It took me a while to realize the value of the experience I had at Michigan,” he says. “But I went back to campus, met students and professors, and I remembered what it was like—and what it still is [like] for current students.”
Schweitzer is inspired as he continues to figure into the University’s story, and as the list of students touched by his generosity grows. “Angell was right: Michigan provides an uncommon education for the common man. That was me when I came to Michigan: a common man. I want those kids to get to experience what I did.”
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