Remembering Paul Sarvela: 1959-2014

By Luke Nozicka

Community reflects on 28 years of service to SIU

When interim Chancellor Paul Sarvela died Sunday at Memorial Hospital of Carbondale, the university didn’t lose just its chancellor. It lost a husband, a father and a man who loved life, beer, research, music and fishing.

“I really thought I was going to come into work this morning and find out it had been a bad dream,” interim Provost Susan Ford said Monday. “And there he would be, sitting behind his desk with a smile on his face, telling me how his day was going.”


Many described Paul, who was appointed acting chancellor July 8, as a loving family man who enjoyed relaxation.

“I had several occasions to be at social events with Dr. Sarvela and his wife [Debbie] and it was really delightful to see how close he was with his family,” said Ford, who got to know Paul well when she was assigned provost duties Aug. 4. “Just knowing Dr. Sarvela, it seems to me what he would want everyone to do is treasure their family, take care of their health and put their focus on business, sort of in that order, in memory of him. To understand your priorities and really take some enjoyment out of life.”

SIU President Randy Dunn, who met Paul as dean of the College of Applied Sciences and Arts in the mid-1990s, said Paul was authentic.

“There was no pretense to Paul whatsoever. No irony,” Dunn said. “I use this line that I think sums this all up, and it’s: if you have a problem with Paul Sarvela, you’re the problem. He was one that poured his heart and soul into everything he did.”

Former SIU President Glenn Poshard, who has been friends with the Sarvela family for 15 years, said Paul was one of the finest people he had ever met. Poshard said Paul, who loved the outdoors, had an unforgettable laugh.

“I would be sitting in my office and I usually kept the door open, and I could hear this big belly laugh down the hallway and I knew it was Paul,” he said. “His office was down the hall from mine in the Stone Center and we had the opportunity to see each other every day. Paul was one of my closest, dearest friends and I’m going to miss him extraordinarily so.”

James Garvey, interim vice chancellor for research, said Paul was a visionary leader and genuinely cared about the people he worked with.


“Paul was wonderful. … He was very passionate about the students and the integrity of the education here,” Garvey said. “He was also very interested in the application of research, not just interested in research for his sake, but the use of research… for the betterment of society.”

Garvey said he and Paul, who frequently worked on church projects, used to talk for long periods of time about beer.

“The man loved beer,” said Garvey, who used to home brew. “It wasn’t just about going out and socializing; He was interested in how to make beer, what kind of types of beer were out there. He was very passionate about that. It was a good opportunity for us to bond over the science of brewing.”

Jacob Gorecki, a junior from Carbondale studying elementary education, met the Sarvelas when he took piano lessons and became duet partners with Paul’s son John, when they were 5 years old. He said Paul loved music and always coached him and John when they were young.

“I’ve never really thought about it but he was one of those guys that made me work harder and I became a better musician because of him,” said Gorecki, mellophone section leader for the Marching Salukis. “He came to band camp the week before school started to say hi to everybody, and it was awesome because usually people don’t care about the marching band.”

Gorecki said Paul always pushed his daughter Kristin to improve her oboe skills. He said Paul, who played many instruments, including the trumpet, used to play in a church band. Garvey said Paul played in a polka band as well.

“[John and I] did freshman football together in high school and then we were also in the marching band, so we’d have practice and have to change really quick and go to band,” Gorecki said. “We’d have to travel for the band and we’d also have a football game before, so Paul would pick us up from the game and drive us to band, which was always two to three hours away, which is crazy.”

Gorecki, who only sees John several times a year because he attends Eastern Illinois University, said the Sarvelas always cooked the best food after band practice. He said Paul was a cool guy, and remembers when he showed him and John how to make “grenades.”

“Not real grenades obviously. He would put paper with rocks and fireworks basically,” Gorecki said. “We’d throw it up in the air. … It was pretty fun. He was a really down to earth guy—just really nice.”

Garvey, director of the Center for Fisheries, Aquaculture and Aquatic Sciences, said he and Paul often bonded over conversations about fishing.

“He grew up in the [Upper Peninsula] up in Michigan, so he grew up fishing. … He had that Yooper accent. That—you know—‘How you doing there,’ sort of thing,” Garvey said. “We’d talk about pike and all the other kinds of species. … Never had the opportunity to [fish with him.] We talked about it, but unfortunately things were cut too short.”

Aside from recreation and working out several times a week, Paul hit the ground running in his new role.

At a press conference Monday, Dunn said Paul would have made a very strong candidate for the permanent chancellor position. He said assessing campus policies and procedures was one project Paul was asked to take on as an incoming chancellor, and he didn’t waste any time modifying ones he thought needed improvements.

During his four months as interim chancellor, Paul changed more than 20 campus policies, including continual appointments, as opposed to one-year contracts, and enabling the rehiring of retired faculty and staff. He changed policies so head researchers of a grant can be in charge of the money they’ve been awarded, and made it so more overhead recovery money is distributed throughout campus.

Paul was also big on changing how paperwork at the university is handled, and revised procedures so most hiring decisions could be made without his signature.

“Why do I need to approve a cook?” he would often say during interviews. “I don’t know if we need to have a cook in the cafeteria, but the great people at housing and the vice chancellor in charge know if we need to have a cook in the cafeteria. Doggone it, if we need to have a cook in the cafeteria, go and hire them.”

His management philosophy was simple; hire good people and let them do their work. He decentralized decision making on campus by creating a model that gave deans and vice chancellors more power.

Garvey said Paul clarified what the university’s intentions are, which got the campus back on track.

“The changes he implemented were quick enough in the short time he was in charge of the university, that he has set us on a good track, a good path for the future,” Garvey said. “The changes he made were all for the better. Every decision he made was based on good information.”

Paul also changed the 5-10-15 rule so department chairpersons decide if classes with low enrollment need to be canceled. He altered policies so students who earn external internship grants can make as much money as the employer allows, he decreased the cost per credit hour for military students from $350 to $250, and made it so students can work 37.5 hours a week when school is not in session for at least five days, including summer semesters.

On Monday, Gov. Pat Quinn authorized the university to lower flags on campus until sunrise Saturday in honor of Paul’s service to the state and university.

Poshard said Paul once got a traffic violation because the two were running late to an Illinois Board of Higher Education meeting and he encouraged Paul to speed up to make it through a yellow light.

“I guess in the middle of the intersection the light turned red and a couple weeks later or so Paul came in my office and said, ‘You know, you caused me to get a’— I think it was a $75 ticket or so, I can’t remember,” Poshard said. “And he was laughing and we were kidding about it. … We had a few belly laughs over that.”

Adrian Miller, the campus’ student representative on the SIU Board of Trustees, said he is deeply saddened by the news.

“I can’t speak any more highly of a person than of Dr. Sarvela,” said Miller, who grew up knowing him. “SIU has lost somebody that will be hard to replace.”

It is without a doubt Paul left an impression on the campus and those who knew him.

“It breaks my heart,” Garvey said. “We just miss him terribly.”

Luke Nozicka can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @lukenozicka.