Sylvia J. Karczag Lopez-Negrete
Sylvia J. Karczag Lopez-Negrete passed away on May 23, 2018, at age 93, surrounded by her loving children and grandchildren. She was born in San Antonio, Texas, on July 15, 1924, after her Mexican immigrant parents crossed the border at the Rio Grande shortly before her birth. Her family returned to Mexico when she was a few months old where she lived and traveled throughout until school age, returning to San Antonio, with her mother. She attended the Ursuline Academy in San Antonio, a year of pre-med in Mexico and then moved at age 19 with her mother to Santa Barbara, California, where she met and married Dezso (“Dennis”) Karczag, co-founder of the Direct Relief non-profit organization. They met while he was managing and supervising the construction of the Presidio shopping Center which included renovating the original Chapel and opening the famous Eaton’s restaurant. She came in his office to sign a lease for a small Mexican import shop in the Presidio called “The Tourist Shop.” The story passed down was that as soon as Sylvia walked into the management office to inquire about renting the shop, Dezso said to himself “I’m going to marry that woman.” They were in love for the 53 years of their marriage, Dezso passing away in May of 2000 at age 96 after a brief illness.
Sylvia, like her husband, was a beacon of light in the Santa Barbara community and for her children. She did everything with grace and style. There was nothing she could not accomplish and her heart was generous. She had a love of singing opera, acting and provided healthy meals for her family from the vegetables she grew and the chickens she raised. She was an excellent and adventurous cook. After every trip out of the country she would return with new recipes, whether it be Italian, Brazilian or Korean. She played leading roles in many productions at the Repertory and Lobero Theaters including “12 Angry Women” “The Women” “Silence” and “The Sound of Music” among others.
After raising her five children while volunteering at Direct Relief, singing in the Mount Carmel choir, sewing vestments for the Altar Society and serving on the board of Planned Parenthood and as President of the local United Nations chapter, Sylvia returned to school yearning for a professional career. She had a natural grace that resulted in an offer from Marymount School in the 60’s, at that time, a girls private Catholic K- 12 school, where her daughter, Anna, attended, to teach Speech and Charm to the middle school girls. She attended SBCC and then transferred to UCSB where she obtained a B.S. in cultural anthropology. She then attended Cal Lutheran and obtained her Masters in Counseling and Guidance. She began accumulating her required hours to obtain her license in Family Therapy under the tutelage of Alicia Dondero. However, she had always been a fierce advocate for the underprivileged and was at ease in extemporaneous public speaking, so it was a natural step for her to be interested in law. She aspired to become an attorney, took and passed the first year Bar Exam and attended 3 years of Law School at Ventura College of Law before undergoing multiple surgeries for glaucoma that eventually left her blind in one eye and foiled her aspirations.
Undaunted by the setback of her glaucoma, being bi-lingual, she became a lecturer in Multi-Ethnic communication throughout southern California conducting in-service teacher training in multi-ethnic group relations. She also became interested in educating the children and parents of children of migrant Farm workers, teaching them health and nutrition at the same time giving them hope to aspire to higher goals. She traveled to the broccoli fields in Guadalupe, strawberry fields in Santa Maria and Oxnard and as far as Fresno, Yuba City and Hanford, conducting Migrant Education workshops for parents and teachers both in English and Spanish, her native language. She also wrote and obtained grants that enabled her to conduct workshops all over California, sponsored by the Department of Education. Parents, students, teachers and administrators packed into school rooms and auditoriums to hear her message of hope.
After raising five children through the tumultuous 60’s, she became interested in helping those with alcohol and drug addiction. She was the chief evaluator for the Santa Barbara County Schools Drug Abuse Intervention Project (DAIP). She was also a member of the Board of the National Council on Alcoholism and then was elected to serve as President of the Board of Directors. Sylvia’s inspiration to help others came from her father, who was a doctor in Mexico and traveled with his family to treat the poorest of the poor in rural areas with his wife and young daughter, Sylvia, in tow. Later, her inspiration was her husband, Dezso Karczag’s, life work as the co-founder of Direct Relief. Throughout her life she was consistently a presence and volunteered at Direct Relief serving as President after her husband Dezso, resigned at age 80. Sylvia was the recipient of the Santa Barbara News Press Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991 honoring her accomplishments and devotion to the underprivileged. She is survived by 4 of her children, Christian, John, Anna and Stephan, eight grandchildren, Justin, Alex, Lauren, Marina, Stefanie, Johnny, Megan and Ryan and 5 great grandchildren, Wilder, Julian, Evelyn, Mason, and Athena. Her 6th great-grandchild, Olivia, will be born any day. The memory of her generous and indomitable spirit and unfailing love for this community will live on.
Her last years were spent surrounded by the wonderful and loving staff at Casa Dorinda to which the family shall be forever grateful. While she could, she continued to attend events at Direct Relief and also loved participating in the productions at Casa Dorinda singing in a beautiful opera voice that astounded all. There will be a Memorial celebration of her life at Direct Relief’s new Headquarters at 2:00 pm Saturday, June 30th where all are welcome. In lieu of flowers, please send donations to Direct Relief.