First Posted: 3/8/2013
One thing is certain: Joe Sylvanovich was murdered in Kenya in May of 1981. Among his family and friends there are differing stories about how he was killed.
Was he hit on the head with a lamp by an assailant who broke into his apartment in Amukura, Kenya? Was Sylvanovich stabbed 40 times and found in the bathroom of his apartment? Did he stagger, mortally wounded, out of his apartment toward a nearby market with knives protruding from his body? Or was he killed near that market by attackers wielding machetes?
And what was the motive? Was it a nothing more than a mugging? Or was it political? Or was it a power struggle at the school where Sylvanovich taught?
Joe Sylvanovich, an only child, was born and raised in Exeter. His father, Joseph, was a mine laborer. His mother, Catherine, was a waitress at the old P & M Diner. Joe graduated from old Exeter High in 1964. Though he’s been dead over 30 years, there are still local people who remember him well, including his cousin Carolann Sylvanovich, who lives in Wilkes-Barre, and her friend Ray Di Roberto who lives in West Wyoming and often visits Sylvanovich’s grave.
“I’ve met a lot of people in my 71 years,” Di Roberto said, “but Joey stands out above them all. He had quite a mind and intellect.”
Two of his high school classmates remember Sylvanovich as reserved and smart and, though he was 6-foot-5, gentle.
“He was very quiet,” said Max Marcus, a classmate who is the president of the Exeter Historical Society. “He was tall and wiry. I guess you could say he was kind of nerdy. He didn’t drive. He was very intelligent.”
Another classmate, Andy Hudak, who has lived in Baltimore since 1969, has a similar memory. “He kept to himself, but was very nice. Intelligent. In school he was structured. A wonderful student.”
Hudak was the last person in Exeter to see Sylvanovich alive. That was in 1977. Hudak, in Exeter for a visit, went to dinner with Sylvanovich and a couple other guys.
“We went out Marianacci’s,” Hudak said. “Joe had to get to the airport the next day to fly to Kenya and didn’t have car. I gave him a ride.”
The Sylvanovich and Hudak familes had a macabre kinship. On October 14, 1946, when Andy Hudak was two months old, his father, Andrew, was killed in a mine roof fall in the Schooley Shaft, where he was subbing for Sylvanovich’s father, Joseph, who was out sick.
The younger Sylvanovich felt connected to the Hudaks. “He and my mother, Mary, exchanged letters when he was in Kenya,” Hudak said. “He sent her a gift, a small statue of an African, cooking, stirring a pot.”
When Hudak gave Sylvanovich a ride to the airport in 1977 for the first leg of his flight it was Sylvanovich’s second trip to Kenya. He went there with the Peace Corps in 1972 after getting a masters degree in chemistry at Suny Binghamton. Sylvanovich had started his graduate work at Kent State, but transferred after witnessing the infamous Kent State shootings.
At Binghamton Sylvanovich won a National Science Foundation award, published two papers and was a highly-regarded teaching assistant. Though he was clearly doctoral student material, rather than going for his doctorate, he joined the Peace Corps and was assigned to teach chemistry in Kenya at St. Paul’s Amukura, a Catholic high school in the Busia district of western Kenya, within walking distance of the Ugandan border.
Sylvanovich was such an effective teacher that St. John’s developed a national reputation for the sciences and chemistry while he was there. After his Peace Corps tour was up in 1975, he went back to Exeter, much to the dismay of his students, who called him “Sylvan,” and the school’s Headmaster, Pancras Otwani, who made him a standing offer to return at any time.
Edward Omolo was one of Sylvan’s Kenyan students during his first time at St. John’s. Today Omolo is a chemist living in Harrisburg. In a telephone interview he talked about his relationship with Sylvan, whom he considered a mentor and friend. “We were so scared of a white teacher,” Omolo said. “It was the first time we were taught by a white teacher. He was so tall, it was intimidating.”
But Omolo soon learned Sylvan was not at all scary.
“He didn’t look at you as a white teacher. He looked at you as a human being. He would come to the dormitory and ask why you were not doing well in class.”
Before he left in 1975, Sylvan had Omolo over for tea. “He invited me to his house to talk to me on a personal level. To me it was a great honor.”
Omolo said Sylvan had a profound influence on his life. “Today I’m a chemist because Sylvan gave me the background.”
In May of 1976, drawn by St. Paul’s excellent reputation, Joseph Alila, a student with an already keen interest in chemistry, and some friends, left a decent school in their hometown of Homa Bay near the Tanzania border to enroll at St. Paul’s Amukura eight hours away.
But when Alila arrived at St. Paul’s, he was disappointed that the school didn’t have a chemistry teacher. Sylvanovich had already gone back to Exeter. “When we got there we heard there used to be an excellent teacher there,” Alila said.
Back in Exeter Sylvanovich was, friends say, bored and restless. He took St. John’s up on the offer to go back to Kenya. Otwani arranged with the Kenyan Ministry of Education office for Sylvanovich to return as a private citizen in January of 1977.
By going back, Sylvanovich set the stage for his own death, but even in death he changed not only the life of Joseph Alila, but also, through Alila, the lives of scores of Kenyan students to come.
Next week: Alila makes a strange spiritual connection with Sylvanovich. Theories about his murder are offered and Omolo and a Peace Corpsman names Mark Johnson go back to Kenya to investigate his death.