Obituary: Sylvester Pace / Helped disadvantaged youth achieve dreams via education

June 13, 2012

Obituary: Sylvester Pace / Helped disadvantaged youth achieve dreams via education
June 10, 2012 12:25 am  By Ann Rodgers / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Sylvester Pace, whose gratitude for a college scholarship led him to help thousands of disadvantaged black Pittsburgh youths attend college through his leadership of NEED, died Friday from non-Hodgkins lymphoma. The Penn Hills resident was 58.

"He is one of the fiercest advocates for education ever to have lived in this city," said former city councilman Sala Udin. "There are thousands of young people in college today from the inner city who would not have been there were it not for the inspiration and resources provided by NEED under the guidance of Sylvester Pace."

He grew up in the Hill District, migrating from the lower Hill to public housing. Later his family bought a home in Schenley Heights.

Although he never thought of himself as poor, he qualified for a needs-based scholarship from NEED to attend Cheyney University. NEED was founded as the Negro Educational Emergency Drive a decade earlier by two Pittsburgh women, one black and one white, to help black students who were academically qualified for college but couldn't pay for it.

After college Mr. Pace worked for the Pressley Ridge School for troubled children, starting as a residential counselor at its wilderness program in Ohiopyle.

"Sylvester was the consummate scholar and gentleman," said Randy Brockington of Penn Hills, who became a close friend through a shared fraternity. "He could relate to anyone about anything, no matter their age or ethnicity. He had a genuine love for education. He knew how to laugh, and to laugh at himself as well as others."

His gentlemanly ways won the heart of his future wife, Rhonda, who met him on a blind date in 1976. They married three years later and had two daughters.

Pressley Ridge promoted him several times. Then Abraxas Youth & Family Services hired him to lead an expansion into West Virginia, Mrs. Pace said. Along the way he continued his own education, earning a master's degree in counseling education and a certificate in marketing from the University of Pittsburgh. When he died, he was working on a doctorate in education at Duquesne University.

To support his growing family, he took a lucrative job as a pharmaceutical salesman. But he continued to help youths as a leader of 10-state bus tours to historically black colleges. That caught the attention of Herman Reid Jr., the longtime executive director of NEED, who saw in him a beneficiary of the program who had remained committed to educating black students and who had a background in marketing. He hand-picked Mr. Pace to be his successor, grooming him as an assistant for 18 months before handing over the reins in 2001.

Taking the post with NEED "meant a lot to him. He was able to be a role model to a lot of students and reach back and help other people," Mrs. Pace said.

"He had a gentleness about his spirit that helped him to manage. He was a good administrator. He always knew how to interact with people in a way that was not confrontational."

He was aided by a tremendous facility for remembering people's names, Mr. Brockington said. Whenever they were out together, in any city, people who had taken his college tours would see him and greet him "and he would remember their names," he said. "It was absolutely astounding to me. But it showed how much he cared. He really got to know people."

He built on his predecessors' foundation to transform NEED into a full-service college access program. It didn't only provide scholarships, but mentored students to prepare them for college and provided internships to let them experience career possibilities.

NEED has provided about $20 million in grants to more than 19,000 needy students over its 49-year history. One of his final projects was to launch a campaign, The Fund for the 50th, to support and expand its work.

"Sylvester loved education. He knew it was the key to success," Mr. Brockington said.

But that didn't just mean material success.

"Sylvester wanted to encourage young people to help others as well," Mr. Brockington said. "He not only encouraged them to dream and achieve more than they realized, but he offered them a spiritual foundation."

Mr. Pace was a devout Christian. "He wasn't overbearing, but he encouraged young people to attend church, to become a member and be active in their church community. Every event he sponsored had some kind of church connection," Mr. Brockington said. NEED offered a 50 percent match to any scholarship that nine predominantly black churches raised for their high school graduates.

Mr. Udin, who is president emeritus of the Coro Center for Civic Leadership, had traveled the same path through the projects. CORO worked with NEED to find internships for students and they served together on the board of A+ Schools. Years ago NEED provided a college scholarship for Mr. Udin's son Bomani Howze, who is now advising a White House project on urban economic revitalization.

"It's very difficult to get anything done in our community without making enemies. He was one of the few people I know where you never hear anyone say anything bad about him," Mr. Udin said. "Everybody loved him and he loved everybody. If he had any ill feelings toward anyone, he kept them to himself and treated them with dignity and respect."

In addition to his wife, Mr. Pace is survived by two daughters, Rachel Pace and Stephanie Pace, both of Washington, D.C.; a brother, John, and a sister, Tawanda Moye, both of the Hill District.

Visitation will be Wednesday in Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church, East Liberty, though the hours have not been finalized. The funeral will be 11 a.m. Thursday, also in Sixth Mount Zion.

Ann Rodgers: or 412-263-1416.
First Published June 10, 2012 12:00 am

Further information: FYI

Sylvester Pace's funeral has been changed to:

Mt. Ararat Baptist Church
271 Paulson Avenue Pittsburgh, PA 15206
(412) 441-1800

The funeral will begin at 11:00AM Thursday morning.

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