Anyone who met John Sarvey soon sensed in him a happiness that transcended the simple pleasures many take in a job well done or time well spent with family, friends, and colleagues.
“The word delight has to come into this in some way,” his wife, Rachel, said as she searched for ways to define him. “He just really loved being delighted.”
That was clear at Northeastern University, where as executive director of the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs his personal warmth turned the chilly distance between college and community into an intimate relationship. It was even more apparent each moment he spent with his young son and daughter, Elijah and MeeJee.
“He would do anything for them,” Rachel said. “Even with a bad back or a headache he could not resist having fun with them. It was what he lived for.”
Mr. Sarvey, who formerly was executive director of City Year programs in Boston and San Jose, Calif., collapsed the day after Thanksgiving in Rockland County, N.Y., while visiting relatives. He died two days later, on Nov. 25, and tests are pending to determine the cause. Mr. Sarvey was 45 and lived in Newton.
“John was just something,” said Michael S. Dukakis, who was among the eulogists at Mr. Sarvey’s memorial service last week. “Everybody loved him. Everybody loved working for him. He cared deeply about the world and people and issues. He was the whole package.”
At the service, Dukakis said, he told mourners he had “just come from teaching 35 really fine young people who are taking a course in public policy administration. I try to help them understand what it takes to be a fine public servant. John was that kind of person. He’s my model for what I hope these kids will be.”
As part of his work at Northeastern, Mr. Sarvey was a senior associate at the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy, which is named for the former governor and his wife, Kitty. Mr. Sarvey designed an open classroom series for the center that welcomes the public to lectures.
“There was a kindness about John and a gentleness in the way he got everything done,” said Barry Bluestone, founding director of the Dukakis Center. “It all got done, but he did it with a gentle hand.”
Born in Guam, John Hoang Sarvey was the youngest of four brothers and moved with his family to Texas, Maryland, Florida, and back to Texas before spending his high school years in Orange County, Calif.
His late mother, whose self-motivation Mr. Sarvey admired, was from Vietnam. His father was recruited often by computer companies, prompting the family’s many moves.
Even as a child, Mr. Sarvey “was very kind, very generous, and always looked out for other people,” said his brother Bob, of Minneapolis.
“He walked his talk and he always inspired young people,” said his brother James, of Newport Beach, Calif. “He was always altruistic. From the early age of 8, he was talking about creating a university for underprivileged individuals.”
Mr. Sarvey went to the University of California at Los Angeles, where he was president of the undergraduate student government and encouraged community service.
He received a Coro fellowship in public affairs and worked for the nonprofit Campus Outreach Opportunity League. Traveling around the country, he visited a few hundred colleges while helping build student-led community service programs.
“He never lost sight of the vision and always had a Lincolnesque story to remind us of our purpose, even when the rest of us were mired in the details,” Edith Buhs, who worked with him those years, said in a eulogy.
In the mid-1990s, Mr. Sarvey switched to City Year, which he served as a national vice president, in addition to running programs in Boston and San Jose.
Charlie Rose, a City Year colleague, said in a eulogy that Mr. Sarvey was “gentle about his own skills and talents, but deeply ambitious and visionary about the cause. He was always focused on the mission. It was never about him.”
At a conference in Boston in 1994, Mr. Sarvey met Rachel d’Oronzio and their paths kept crossing. They began dating two years later and married in 1998.
With an enviable smile that was easy and engaging, Mr. Sarvey brought his passion for social equality, community service, and education to scores he encountered through the League and City year before Bluestone recruited him to Northeastern in 2006.
“John is one of the finest colleagues and one of the most beloved colleagues I’ve ever had,” Bluestone said. “It was an absolute joy to come into the office and work with him every day.”
The Dukakis Center is part of Northeastern’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs. “John was intimately involved in both and played an important role in building them into what they are today,” Bluestone said.
Along with receiving a bachelor’s in organizational studies from UCLA, Mr. Sarvey graduated from Northeastern with a master’s in business administration, which he completed while being as present at home as he was at work.
“To us he was just an incredibly loyal, and an incredibly devoted husband and father,” Rachel said. “He wanted to be involved in everything, and he encouraged the kids to follow their dreams. . . . A few days after he died, I kept thinking how upset he would be to be missing the rest of their lives.”
Her brother Ken d’Oronzio, of Valley Cottage, N.Y., whose home the Sarveys visited Thanksgiving weekend, spoke in a eulogy about how Mr. Sarvey’s “love for Rachel and his children were his driving force, his reason-to-be for the dreams he pursued and that they pursued together.”
In addition to his wife, two children, brothers, and brother-in-law, Mr. Sarvey leaves his father and stepmother, George and Linda of Forest Lake, Calif.; another brother, Chris, of Kane, Pa.; a stepbrother, Travis Gogue of Costa Rica; and a stepsister, Shawn Gogue of New Jersey.
Many at leadership levels bring their jobs home with them in ways literal and figurative. With Mr. Sarvey, the reverse was true. Elijah and MeeJee sometimes went to work with him, and their familial presence lingered.
“They might be there only for 20 minutes or a half an hour, but they affected us for the rest of the work week,” Bluestone said.
“You could see the absolute joy that John took in his kids, and vice versa,” Bluestone added, and that carried over into Mr. Sarvey’s approach to everything else. “He took delight in his work and he took delight in the people he worked with. There was a joy about him that was infectious.”