A memorial service will be held Monday for Sylvester Greenwood, who became an educator after an injury ended his two-year pro football career. He served the West Contra Costa Unified School District for 38 years in roles ranging from security officer to interim superintendent, the first African American to hold the latter post. He retired five years ago.
Described by one former school board member as a “gentle giant” and by many as a strong advocate for children, Greenwood died June 9, the last day of the school year, after struggling with complications from diabetes. He was 66.
Services will be held 11 a.m. Monday at Berkeley Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church, 1400 Eighth St., Berkeley.
Greenwood was known for his professionalism and calming influence. A frequent sight at school board meetings for many years, Greenwood long had the difficult job of overseeing student expulsion hearings and disciplinary transfers. His many other roles in the district over the years included teacher, principal and various district administrative posts, including serving as interim superintendent in 1990. He was also active in West Contra Costa YMCA for many years and was a deacon at Berkeley Mount Zion Baptist Church.
Greenwood’s daughter, Dr. Sylvia Greenwood, is principal of DeJean Middle School in Richmond. She was vice principal of in El Cerrito in 2007-08 and 2008-09. He is also survived by his wife, Brenda.
“He was very professional,” said Karen Fenton, who served on the West Contra Costa school board from 1992 to 2006. “All the superintendents relied on him because they were new and he had history.”
Fenton recalled that from time to time groups would march to the school district’s administration building on Bissell Avenue in Richmond. “He would go out and greet the group and calm them. Nobody messed with him. He was big physically but very calming,” said Fenton, who called Greenwood “a gentle giant.”
Another former board member, Glen Price of El Cerrito, said, “Sylvester Greenwood gave his heart and soul to our community's children and youth and he will be deeply missed. During my nine years on the school board, he was steady as a rock and an invaluable mentor and thoughtful partner who always put the interests of students first.”
Those sentiments were echoed by Don Lau, who served on the school board from 1981 to 1993 and also worked with Greenwood through YMCA. “There was no one who cared more about kids being successful,” he said.
Greenwood was the “ultimate role model,” Lau said. While he had a career as a professional athlete, Lau said, Greenwood prepared himself for life after sports and encouraged young people to “prepare for your whole life” as well. The West Contra Costa YMCA gave Greenwood its Rita Davis Volunteer of the Year Award in 2008.
According to information supplied by his family, Greenwood was born Feb. 17, 1945, in Thebes, Arkansas, to Willie L. and Cloattee Greenwood. The family moved to Berkeley in 1946, then to Richmond in 1953. Greenwood attended Peres Elementary School and Roosevelt Junior High School and was graduated from Harry Ells High School in 1962. He met his future wife, Brenda Joyce Hurd, when she was a sophomore and he was a senior. They married in 1967.
He attended Contra Costa Community College and San Francisco State College and earned a football scholarship to Fresno State for the spring semester of 1965. In 1967, he was drafted by the New Orleans Saints. Upon leaving the NFL, he continued his education at San Francisco State. He received bachelor’s degrees in physical education and history in 1973. In 1978, he received a master’s in educational administration with an administrative credential.
Greenwood began his career with the school district, then known as Richmond Unified, in 1968 as security officer. He was a student teacher at Adams Junior School in Richmond and taught physical education and history at his alma mater, Harry Ells. His first administrative position was as dean of students at De Anza High School in Richmond. His other posts included principal of Kennedy High School in Richmond. He retired from the school district in 2006 as an assistant superintendent.
He was a member of the Association of California School Administrators (ACSA), past chair of the ACSA State Committee on Urban Affairs, a board member of the Richmond Police Activities League and the Richmond Unified Education Fund, board member and past president of the University of San Francisco Alumni Association, past director of the Richmond Exchange Club, past president of the Richmond Association of School Administrators, past president of the Board of Directors of the Richmond Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), and past chair of the Deacon Board and member of the Trustee Board at Berkeley Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church.