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Gary Sydow

Gary Sydow presents at a U.S. Senate committee hearing in 1992

Gary Sydow (BA: Psychology, 1972; M: Urban Planning, 1985) begins his working memoir about his education and career with this:

"From my current point in life—I am 81—I look back with a profound fondness for the University of Michigan and a deep gratitude for the education that its schools, departments, centers, and Biological Station have imparted to me. Those understandings, in concert with other practicums, have enabled me to survive, and to live, successfully. If I can give back to this process in small ways and support students, especially those who have followed similar paths, I will always feel an abiding life satisfaction. All things considered, the whole of my U-M experience contributed hugely over time to a rewarding career in a singular but somewhat unusual way—a road less traveled, certainly—the recounting of which follows."

What “follows” is the fascinating, moving, and often wryly self-deprecating account of a deeply sincere man’s intellectual and vocational development. In writing and in conversation, Sydow is humble and refers with mild chagrin to the circuitousness of much of his journey. But from an outside perspective, what he sees as a story of many tangents is instead the narrative of a man committed to living authentically and meaningfully—to seeking truth and connection with others in whatever ways he is best equipped to do so. Throughout his life, he developed a deep human insight through an unusually varied set of locations, circumstances, and relationships—including the U-M Department of Psychology, the U.S. military, Vietnamese culture at war and at peace, and a 35-year post-war search for truthful and grounded answers for families of missing soldiers and prisoners of war (those unaccounted-for).

An aeriel view of U-M's Ann Arbor campus in 1959 (1), the year Sydow enrolled at U-M

For all his demurral, however, Sydow is proud of many of the things he has accomplished, and he maintains that the broad education offered in the Department of Psychology and in other centers at U-M was key in helping him achieve them. Indeed, it was during his stints at U-M that he experienced several major self-insights and turning points—beginning with his initial arrival in Ann Arbor in September of 1959. After growing up in the tiny town of Alanson, MI (population 319) and graduating with 12 other seniors from that town’s even tinier high school, his arrival on U-M’s campus of (then) 30,000 students was both a culture shock and a mind-expanding revelation for him. He explains that, in many ways, his introduction to U-M’s campus was also his introduction to the world.

Early in his college career, Sydow’s goal was to become a chemist (the only “pure” science class offered at Alanson High School). However, he was at first unable to find an “easy placement” for his wide interests, his expansive vocabulary, and his intuitive interest in people’s motivations and personalities. 

Over time, he realized the social sciences were a good fit for the kinds of questions he was most passionate about answering, and he switched his major to Psychology. Of that decision, he says, “I wanted to learn how people tick (and, as ever, how I tick), how we got here as a species, and how our current behaviors may relate to practices in other times and in other cultures. I added several other important LSA courses, significant workloads. I felt alone in the big decision “to switch” at the time, but I knew that it would open some important doors for myself to greater sociability, to new friends, and to a broader understanding of philosophies and religions, particularly those of Asia. I was determined to reach out and be more than the nerd I had become!”

Sydow's reference to greater sociability and to friends is particularly significant. He explains that he struggled throughout his early years with understanding how to communicate and connect with others through language and other means. Psychology was one path he chose to help him make those connections; the study of languages was another. Indeed, he reflects that another important aspect of his time at the University of Michigan was the two years of foreign language required at that time to receive a bachelor’s degree. He realized then that his passion and talent for language extended well beyond English. 

But Sydow’s interest in languages was about to play a much greater role in his life than he had ever expected. He explains that after more than five years of “pushing the rock up the mountain (per Sisyphus)” with heavy academic workloads, he simply burned out. Despite the need for only three more lab reports to complete his Psychology BA, he decided to take a momentary break from classes.

A Vietnam-War-era draft protest near the diag on Liberty Street (2)

In ordinary times, that decision would likely have caused only a short delay. But this was 1964. Almost immediately after unenrolling, Sydow was drafted into the U.S. Army. He recalls that an acquaintance had alerted him to an intriguing language program offered by the Army in which “you could learn German, live in Germany near the Baltic, speak German with local people, and perform translations. Prospectively, that sounded like an ideal way to connect with others!” Excited about this real-life language learning opportunity, he applied for the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. In his memoir, he reflects:

"I felt a deep need to learn how to really speak with and get through to other people. I believed that the excellent and practical language training offered by the Institute would be perfect for that. Then, after passing a qualifying test during basic training, I was directed to rank my learning preference for each of the 123 languages and dialects of the world (who knew?) from first to 123rd. My first choice was German. Imagine my surprise when, after six weeks (in 1965), I was selected for my 63rd choice: Vietnamese, northern dialect, a language I still speak to this day.  I suppose, in jest, I might now be willing to move that preference up to fourth or fifth. In fact, I had no idea then I was about to be immersed in a 35-year voyage into another culture—and (I now say retrospectively) happily so!

"I then enthusiastically pursued a ten-month course of aural/oral language learning, the essential mechanism of which was to memorize daily a six-to-eight-page dialogue in Vietnamese, which we performed in two-person teams the following morning. I learned that I could memorize them in one hour, and my instructor regularly called upon me to lead my classmates in sixth-hour preparatory recitations. Among my principal instructors were an ardent Buddhist, a world class-composer of the Vietnamese operas and the Vietnamese National Anthem, and an owner of expropriated North Vietnam coal mines. Highly educated, they all imbued me over time with a love of Vietnam’s culture, as the adage goes, ‘as water wears a stone away.’ Much later in life, when I was to come in retrospect upon my own neural divergences (adult autism), I realized what a godsend that structured role-play had been for me. That simple process opened me up significantly to be able to converse with other people, including strangers. (I note that a form of role-playing is an instrument of development for autistic youngsters at the Greenspring Academy of the Kennedy Krieger Institute, Johns Hopkins, to good effect.)"

Sydow and a buddy at Davis Station in Vietnam

It is easy enough in retrospect to guess what happened next: Sydow was soon shipped off to Vietnam to put his newfound language skills to use in the war effort. During the war, he explains, he “engaged in dialogue, interview, discourse, and translation with enemies, friends, allies, counterparts, and people and texts of all kinds.” Despite the circumstances, Sydow’s time in the army did turn out to be an opportunity for growth and learning in many ways. 

Then, in August of 1971, after six years of continuous war, Sydow was medically evacuated when he contracted tuberculosis, marking the end of his war and the beginnings of the next phase in his life. He returned to Ann Arbor, re-enrolled at U-M, and finally finished his psychology BA. He continued to pursue other studies as well, with a particular focus on his love and penchant for languages. 

The arrival of his first child at Saint Joseph’s Hospital in Ann Arbor made finding a reasonably well-paying career a top priority. Following a period of self-reflection and an intimate recounting of his story with a career counselor, he inferred from the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory that a better path may include a previously unknown artistic function–in this case, architecture. He decided that urban planning (perhaps with a dual masters in natural resources) might lead to a career that would allow him to use his diverse skills. But while exploring job opportunities after completing his first degree, a phone call from a wartime buddy changed the course of his life yet again—this time setting him on the career path he would follow for the next 35 years. Of that time, he writes:

"After the 4th year of graduate studies, with money problems pressing, I was interviewing for jobs in urban planning and natural resource policy when a friend with a similar Vietnamese language experience informed me that there was an important federal job calling for just my “talents”—one needing Vietnamese fluency and previous government analytic experience. I again responded to our nation's call and finally found the job that fit me perfectly."

Sydow (center) at an archaeological and forensic review in North Vietnam

This new role was as an analyst with the Department of Defense’s POW-MIA (Prisoners of War Missing in Action) Office. Over the following decades, Sydow drew on his knowledge of language and psychology—among other life skills and experiences—to help find answers and closure for the families of missing servicemen. He writes:

"Our government has a political, legal, moral, and even constitutional responsibility to care for the families of missing service members from past and current wars. Long after the Vietnam War ended (and before I joined the office in 1985), the DoD belatedly responded with urgency to military families’ decades-long cry for accounting actions and the truth—initially only to those who lost loved ones in the Vietnam war. To understand this cry, one need only yield to a natural empathy I believe is inherent in all of us—for bereaved families facing the unexplainable, heartrending parental loss of a child (or of wives, husbands, sisters, brothers, daughters, fathers, or for other ties of love and family). That is an acute psychological pain that never diminishes, not with the passage of time, nor with the age of the one waiting for answers, and certainly not with distance from the point of loss. Because of my experiences in the war, I naturally understood this deeply and identified with it. Through the course of my duties, I became a much sought-after analyst and truth teller. Our worldwide DoD team endeavored to find new information by collection, interview, case research, archeological/forensic examination, and transparent analysis that we would later use to determine an accounting.

An excavation team south of Hanoi

"What the Department of Defense thought they were hiring in me was a near-native-fluent Vietnamese speaker and analyst—true. However, what they later appreciated more was that I was an accomplished communicator in family relations, politics and policy, congressional testimony, and international negotiation—all of which I did exceptionally well. I celebrate with pride that I aided in the development of the 1990s US-Vietnam relationship (to which POW-MIA had previously been a key impediment).  An example of a more specific personal accomplishment was the signing of a joint archival research agreement with three counterpart ministries of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.  I retired as Director, Research and Analysis, Defense POW-MIA Office—the office that in 2012 oversaw more than 700 investigatory, forensic, and military and civilian officers pursuing answers worldwide!  

"At the time of my retirement, our Vietnam War accounting efforts had returned to families over half of those considered lost as of January 1973. The effort continues in Vietnam and around the world in the pursuit of the fullest possible accounting. Enacting a law in 2009, the U.S. Congress directed that we expand this acclaimed accounting effort to all wars —a huge task undertaken now by the renamed and expanded Defense POW-MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), which pursues accounting of all unaccounted-for personnel from the start of World War II (1941) to the present. This is both a recognition by Congress of our effectiveness, and a commitment that this important national effort shall continue actively and globally. I take great personal satisfaction that my efforts contributed significantly to this as well."

A life in flags: a U-M flag, a U.S. flag, and a POW/MIA flag hang from Sydow's home

Looking back on his life after retirement, Sydow—ever the learner—came upon some experimental and biographic markers suggestive of adult autism. Upon taking a screening test, he actually scored at a 'near-autism' level. But this later-life discovery—made in his 70s—was revelatory for him and helped him make sense of many of his own experiences, including his difficulty finding “his place” in a group or career path, as well as the dramatic social growth he experienced through role playing at the Defense Language Institute. In his post-retirement years, Sydow has become passionate about supporting research on adult autism; he has reached out to provide his unique perspectives to academic and clinical researchers, both national and international.  Indeed, that, along with his gratitude for U-M’s role as a guiding star in his own intellectual and spiritual journey, is one reason he has donated year after year to the Department of Psychology Strategic Fund and other U-M programs for decades. Of his decision to give back, he writes:

"When I reflect in gratitude on the elements of my university experience that have helped facilitate my growth, I wish to ‘pay forward’ by supporting them, as well as other important activities. I am certain there are U-M students and researchers who are working now on programs I have little knowledge of, but which will bring new discoveries and advances for which I will rejoice. Those are some of the reasons for my donations to the various U-M Departments, Schools, Centers, and the Biological Station.”


Click here to donate to the Department of Psychology Strategic Fund



Image credits: Bentley Historical Library
(1) "Aerial Photo of U-M Central Campus, May 1959; BL019964". University of Michigan Library Digital Collections. Accessed February 07, 2023.
(2) "Draft protest , Liberty and Diag; BL005615". University of Michigan Library Digital Collections. Accessed February 07, 2023.