Albert George Sye III, 67, a former Oak Park and River Forest High School principal and education advocate, died on March 26, 2018. His death was confirmed on Tuesday by his son, Albert Sye IV, who said his father died at the University of Chicago Medical Center shortly after being diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer.
At the time of his death, the elder Sye was an educational consultant and had been actively involved in trying to address the racial equity gap in Oak Park.
“He had joined forces with us to make sure we got more teachers of color working in Oak Park,” said Wyanetta Johnson, a longtime Oak Park education advocate. “He was giving us the information that he had learned over the years. He brought a lot to the table and we really enjoyed having him be part of the conversation.”
Sye was OPRF principal in 1995 during what police described “as the worst gang incident in Oak Park’s history,” according to a Chicago Tribune report published at the time.
One Friday night in August that year, shots were reportedly fired by a teenage boy outside of Julian Middle School, where a basketball tournament was being held. No one was hit, but the incident prompted a brawl between rival gang members, with one young person ending up in intensive care.
Johnson said Sye’s experience at the helm of OPRF, in addition to his educational leadership elsewhere across the country, informed his present work, addressing the opportunity gap here in Oak Park.
“He really did grow. At first, there were a lot of times we didn’t agree,” Johnson said of her days working with Sye in the 1990s. “But at the end of the day, we’d debate and come back to the table with a lot of love and respect. We ended up working closely together when he was part of the school system. I think he did a great job.”
Sye was born to Albert II and Josephine Sye in Woodbury, New Jersey, but spent most of his childhood in nearby Glassboro.
In high school, he was a standout wrestler, eventually going on to the University of Arizona, where he would win the Western Athletic Conference Wrestling Championship in 1972 and ’73. In ’72, he earned a place on the NCAA All-American wrestling team.
By his senior year of college, he was ranked third in the nation and named a Mid-Season All-American by Amateur Wrestling News. In 2001, he was inducted into the Arizona Sports Hall of Fame.
For nearly 20 years, “Coach Sye” (as he was known by many) was a classroom teacher in social studies, health and physical education. He also coached wrestling and football.
After earning his master’s in secondary education at the University of Arizona in 1985, Sye transitioned to administration, embarking on what eventually became a 20-year career as an associate principal, principal, assistant superintendent and high school instruction manager in multiple states.
Sye’s final wishes, said his son, were to be cremated and to have two memorial services — one in Glassboro and the other in Tucson, Arizona, where he wanted his ashes spread over a mountain overlooking that city.
Sye is survived by his former wife and friend, Angelita Sye; three children, Belinda Marie Sye Draft, Albert George Sye IV and James Michael Sye; and five grandchildren.
Some of those who worked with Sye on equity issues in Oak Park said they’re currently working to set up a scholarship fund in his name.