Local hero

Chicago Avenue — and the Field neighborhood of South Minneapolis in general— was rocking Tuesday night, its sidewalks overflowing with outdoor diners eating Mexican food, sushi, sandwiches and pizza, and thirsty post-work regulars downing beers, mojitos and margaritas as another brilliant Minnesota sun set over West 48th Street.

To be sure, the entire Field business district seemed to be alive with the distinctive bustle of community, at the heart of which was, as always, Pepito’s Mexican Restaurant and the Parkway Theater, whose imaginative booking on the part of owner-managers Joe Minjares and Trish Cook has helped keep the area funky and fertile over the years, and whose marquee last night solemnly read amidst the revelry, “John Sylvester A Celebration Of Life.”

“People like John, and John himself, made this neighborhood what he wanted it to be,” said Cook, standing in the Parkway lobby as family and friends milled about looking at photos of Sylvester, the all-state player and captain at Washburn High School who went on to play with the USL’s Minnesota Thunder and who died June 16 after a six-year battle with ALS. “During the ’70s and ’80s, it wasn’t considered a walkable neighborhood here. Pepito’s was still the anchor, but nothing thrived, nothing looked like it looks now, but it was still home.

“This part of South Minneapolis all went to school together, we all played sports together. After John passed, someone asked me to go home to my mom’s house, the same one she’s lived in for 50 years, and find our old T-ball pictures. We’ve known each other forever. I’ve known John forever. That’s what makes this part of South Minneapolis special. It’s roots, and John and his family are that, just like Joe and his family and me and my family. I talk to other people and they don’t have friends from kindergarten, and I’m lucky to be able to say I’ve known John since then.”

Two years ago in this space, John “Sly” Sylvester told me he was a happy man. Stricken with ALS in his early 40s, the beloved youth soccer coach sat in his wheelchair in the living room of his parent’s home in South Minneapolis as his wife Tessie and two kids, Gus and Freddie, hovered about.

“Some people have it a lot worse than I do,” said the man everyone who knew him called “Smiles,” via vocal cords that could only manage a whisper. “I try to keep going every day. The transition to wheelchair now was hard. I have to coach a different way, communicate a different way. My boys keep me on my toes. I pray every day. I thank God.”

John "Sly" Sylvester with his family, including wife Tessie.
John “Sly” Sylvester with his family, including wife Tessie.

Incredibly, the day her husband died, Tessie learned that she has adenocarcinoma, a cancer that has spread to her liver and lymph nodes, and that surgery isn’t an option. After spending the last six years and all of her children’s lives supporting her husband of 13 years, now it’s Tessie Sylvester who’s fighting for her life and starting chemotherapy treatment. (A GoFundMe page has been started for the family: gofundme.com/sylvesterjoyandsunshinefund.)

Tessie and the boys weren’t in attendance last night, but they got plenty of shout-outs from the stage, as friends, family and former soccer teammates and coaches talked of John’s light, his competitive spirit and his natural ability to bring people together. His childhood was spent playing sports on the fields and in the gyms all across South Minneapolis, which led to and his life’s work with the Minneapolis United soccer club and Washburn.

As keyboardist Billy Steele played select tunes, including Louie Armstrong’s ever-poignant “What A Wonderful World,” a slideshow of Sylvester’s wonderful world filled the Parkway screen. Slide after slide depicted young people passionate about soccer, competition, fitness and team sports. People, in other words, living life to the hilt, and the unique sadness felt by the loss of Sylvester is testament to what one person can mean to a community and neighborhood.

“Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t know John like they did,” said Minjares, who opened Pepito’s in 1971. “But it was two years after we opened that John and that litter of kids were born, so I got to see them grow up and become citizens. They could be brats, sneaking into the game room and driving me crazy, and I had to kick ‘em with the side of my foot, ‘Get out of here.’ But all but a couple of ‘em grew up to be good citizens.

“A lot of people move out of the neighborhood, to different parts of the country to where their lives take them, but they always think of home. And losing John is something that these people will never experience. They’ll never experience the loss of him, but they’ll know something’s missing.”


Jim Walsh lives and grew up in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at [email protected]