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Parting Thoughts: Dave Sysko of Laffey-McHugh Foundation

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What does Dave Sysko do when he’s overwhelmed? “Take a four-hour bike ride,” he said.

By Peter Osborne
DBT Editor

David Sysko recently retired as executive director of the Laffey-McHugh Foundation after guiding the organization for 18 years and awarding $58 million to hundreds of nonprofits throughout Delaware. After retiring from the Private Clients Group at Kidder Peabody in New York, Sysko returned to Delaware.

Longtime Delaware sports fans remember Dave as a star basketball player at Salesianum and UD, where he still holds two career scoring records 55 years later.

How do you want to be remembered?

In middle age, I heard there were three stages of a fulfilling life: Learning, Earning and Returning (or Giving Back). This stuck with me.

After retiring in 1992 at age 50, I became the “shot doctor” for Glasgow High School’s basketball team. At the end of the season, none of Delaware first-team players received college scholarships due to academic issues. What a waste! So Tony Allen and I formed the Future Stars program in 1993. The program, now called Dream Chasers, is a rigorous academic program for at-risk student athletes to prepare them for post-secondary education or other career options. The program was later incorporated into the Boys & Girls Clubs of Delaware and over the past two decades many deserving young people have completed the program and gone on to college or other productive careers.

Next, Public Allies Delaware was founded in 1994 as a leadership program for young adults, ages 18 to 30, interested in careers in public life. Today, nearly 700 Allies have graduated, volunteering more than
1 million hours of service throughout Delaware.

Finally, The Mike Clark Legacy Foundation was started in 2008 with Peter Borden, Peter Cloud and Dave Ford. This program has raised $1 million to finance four high-tech Learning and Skills Centers, three with the Boys and Girls Clubs and one at Kingswood Community Center helped helping hundreds of children every day bridge the digital divide.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?

Like any parent, I was always giving my kids advice [until I finally] asked myself if I was doing what I was telling them to do. Said another way, maybe I should try following my own advice before telling others what they should be doing.

If you could have just one meal from the road again, where would you be?

Stopped at a restaurant in a small town in Tuscany after a long bike ride. If it is in Delaware, I would do what I do 20 times or more a year, stop at Sambo’s Tavern in Leipsic for a crab cake sandwich after a long bike ride.

When you hear the word “successful,” who do you think of?

Today, I think of a three-person team (Charlie McDowell, Dave Ford and Logan Herring) who are leading the effort to transform the long-neglected Riverside area of Wilmington. Their success will be the success of the people in this new community.

What’s your favorite quote?

“Don’t confuse effort with results.” Laser focus and efficient work effort is more important than how much time one spends getting results.

What advice would you give your 20-25-30-year-old self?

Decide what really motivates you. What are you so passionate about that you are willing to spend the rest of your life doing it? Then write down very short, intermediate and long-term goals and go after them as if your life depends on it (because it does). Measure your progress each year against your stated measurable goals and adjust your actions if you are behind schedule.

What was the “pebble in your shoe” (the everyday distraction that took you off course)?

Letting negative thoughts creep in when problems arise.

What’s the question you wish more people would ask themselves?

What can I do today to make a better life for me and others? Many people go through life not valuing their time and wake up one day being 60 or 70 years old. We get one chance at life; this is not a dry rehearsal.

When you feel overwhelmed, get distracted, or lose your focus, what do you do?

Take a four-hour bike ride.

What’s inspiring you right now?

The redevelopment of the Riverside area now under way in northeast Wilmington. It is a 20-year-plus project that will initially improve the lives of people in the Riverside area but, over time, spread and benefit the city, county and state. It is inspiring to be one of many people involved in the REACH Riverside and Teen Warehouse projects.

What’s the biggest challenge facing Delaware businesses?

Providing a meaningful cradle to college/career development pipeline. This is one of the key tenets of Purpose Built Communities, the consulting organization for the Riverside revitalization initiative.

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