Catching up with Ryan Sawyer

SU's second Rhodes Scholar talks about his time at the university and life since graduating

RyanSawyer_360
Story by: Annie Beckmann
Published: 2014-07-14

Men's Soccer Coach Pete Fewing had an eye for talent when he chose Ryan Sawyer, '94, to play for Seattle University.

Here's how it went down.

Sawyer grew up in Boise, Idaho, and knew a big-city school with the added benefit of soccer would be in his future. He piqued Fewing's interest with a four-minute video of some of his best plays.

"We took a nighttime tour of campus, running from Connolly Center through the campus before heading to Tacoma where he was playing in a soccer game," Sawyer recalls. "After the game, he wanted me to knock the ball around to see if I really could play."

Thanks to that unusual night and that enterprising video Fewing still recalls more than two decades later, Sawyer found his way to Seattle University where he became not only a soccer star and team captain, but also a diligent student, summa cum laude graduate and a celebrated Rhodes Scholar (one of only two; the first was the late Emile Wilson, '71, '74 ME). Later, Sawyer was among the first to be hired by then-upstart Amazon.com, became a published poet and an investment adviser. It's no wonder his alma mater continues to crow about him.

"Ryan came to SU with a strong background," says Jerry Cobb, S.J., one of his English professors at SU. "He was an outstanding student here in every respect-in the classroom, on the soccer field and in campus social life where he met Jane DePaolo, '94, now his wife."

Sawyer took part in the Honors program and majored in philosophy and English. When he and Jane met, she was also an English major. After graduation he headed to Fordham University and in 1995 was named a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University near London. Previous American winners of the Rhodes include two former presidents, the late John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton. 

Sunday Drive 

By Ryan Sawyer

On the winding road to Bowl and Pitcher Park,
did you sing along with everyone else?
Not your four brothers, who steadily pumped
their arms to emit crude squeaks, but one voice

at least, your father’s, his bright baritone
lingering over songs from morning Mass
or some Bing record. Your mother watched while
two ribbons, farmland and sky, rippled past

as the years do, and tapped her lips lightly.
Grandmother stayed home and hid her money
under the placemats. But you, you sat with
tiny hands folded across your tummy

in the front seat, middle, belting it out
comically loud, striking a modish pose,
eyebrow up, like some starlet, keeping time
with the thumping windshield-wipers. On those
Sunday drives, the family Chevy bobbed
along that zigzagging river valley
like a wind-up toy. Out of its windows
came the strangest, sweetest cacophony.

Visit Unsplendid for another poem by Sawyer titled “New Year’s Day.”

At SU, Sawyer approached a literary understanding of poetry first through his philosophy studies, then English. Oxford beckoned him to pursue this passion.

He has a special appreciation for the late Wallace Stevens, a Connecticut insurance executive and accomplished 20th-century poet. "I liked the image of someone with a lot of interests who chooses to write poetry," Sawyer says.

The Rhodes Scholar came upon an essay by Adrienne Rich, a respected feminist poet and essayist. In the essay she described a trip planned to Joshua Tree National Park near Palm Springs, Calif. The last thing she tossed in the trunk of her car was a book of poetry by Wallace Stevens.

"I began to wonder what they might have had in common, not only for what they produced, but for how they lived," says Sawyer, who chose this as the focus of his master's thesis at Oxford.

After he received his master's degree, with distinction, and returned to the Northwest, he knew academia wasn't his calling.

That's when his wife Jane connected him with a recruiter who thought he would be a good fit for a little-known online bookseller called Amazon.com. In his book One Click: Jeff Bezos and the Rise of Amazon.com, Richard Brandt describes how Bezos wanted interesting and fun-to-be-around employees with high college grade-point averages and SAT scores. They needn't fit a corporate mold or have bookselling experience.

What better match than a Rhodes Scholar. Sawyer was among the earliest hires Bezos made and quickly became director of strategic growth, a title that belied his role as chief recruiter for Bezos and Amazon.

"Bezos is the smartest person I've ever met," Sawyer says. "He wanted someone with no experience at recruiting and no bad habits."

Five years later, he left Amazon. He says he was never especially taken with technology. That's when he wrote a volume of poetry. 

After years of surveying the poetry of others, writing poetry was a fresh exploration for Sawyer. Yet, not unlike Wallace Stevens, it never occurred to him to pursue it as a career.

"I never thought of writing in a professional way, rather as part of my life, but not all of it," he says.

Sawyer chose to follow the lead of his dad, an accountant by training, who went to work with Merrill Lynch when he was in his 50s.

"He was a good, disciplined and patient investment adviser who could explain complex ideas. When he retired, I decided to try it. Merrill Lynch said 'go ahead.' After seven years with Merrill Lynch, I eventually thought I should do this on my own," he says.

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