Former BLE President John F. Sytsma, 1921-2007
John Frederick Sytsma, former International President of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, passed away on May 29, 2007 of natural causes.
A beloved husband, father and grandfather, Sytsma was known as a witty and generous man who was well loved by family and friends.
"John was one of the great Brotherhood leaders who helped shape the organization that we know today," said Don Hahs, National President of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET). "His wisdom, experience and knowledge will be sorely missed. I extend deepest sympathies to his family and friends on behalf of the 55,000 men and women of the BLET."
Born in Paterson, N.J., on July 22, 1921, to Frederick John and Alice Hutchinson Sytsma, he married his high school sweetheart, Phyllis June Stingle, in 1942. They were married for over 60 years until her death in 2004.
As a member of "The Greatest Generation" John served his country during World War II, in the U.S. Army, in the Philippines. During World War II, he ran engines in the Phillipines and Korea as a member of an Army Railway Operating Battalion.
During the Depression, John secured his first railroad job at age 19 as a fireman for the New York, Susquehanna & Western Railroad. Working his way up to engineer in 1946, he became a member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers Division 521 (Hawthorne, N.J.) in 1954. He ran an engine in every class of service on the Susquehanna and in 1955 was elected General Chairman for the engineers on that property.
He was also employed for a time by the American Surety Co. of New York and attended the New York Insurance Institute. In addition, he took courses in business administration and business law at the State College of Paterson, N.J. The training enhanced his qualification for elected office with the Brotherhood.
In 1956, he and his family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where he became office administrator and chief clerk at the BLE headquarters. He was elected to the post of General Secretary-Treasurer at the BLE's 14th Triennial Convention in 1962. He held the office of General Secretary-Treasurer from 1962 to 1974 and First Vice President from 1974 to 1976. He was elected President by acclamation in 1976, a post he held for 10 years. He retired in 1986.
During his 10-year tenure as President, he was concerned not only with improving the wages and working conditions of engine service employees in the U.S. and Canada. He was also a leader in developing and promoting workable programs to combat drug and alcohol abuse among rail employees; in opposing random breathalyzer tests and "sniffer dog" searches of employees, and in efforts before Congress and federal agencies to improve safety standards for rail operations.
After retirement, John and Phyllis moved to Salt Lake City, in order to be near family. John formed a close relationship with his grandson Mark Lubbers. The two of them enjoyed many adventures together and were always best "pals." During this time, John was able to indulge a long time interest in firefighters and fire engines.
An excellent photographer, he became official volunteer photographer for the Salt Lake County Fire Department. Over the course of his service with the department, he took over 20,000 pictures of fires and apparatus. He continued in this role until macular degeneration robbed him of his sight.
He is survived by his sister Carol Beun and two daughters, Jacqueline (Floyd) Pruitt of Dunwoody, Georgia; and Ruth (Bruce) Lubbers of Salt Lake City. His four grandchildren are Mark Lubbers of Salt Lake City; Sarah (Phillip) Torrence of Kalamazoo, Michigan; Jonathan (Jenny) Pruitt of Silver Creek, Georgia; and Joshua Pruitt of Atlanta, Georgia. John also has three great-grandchildren: John Mark, Gracie Claire and Benjamin Bruce Torrence of Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Funeral services were held at the First Presbyterian Church, 12 North C Street, Salt Lake City, on June 2. President Sytsma was interred in Mt. Olivet Cemetery, 1342 E. 500 S.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Camp Kostopulos, an organization serving children and adults with disabilities. The camp is located at 2500 Emigration Canyon Road, Salt Lake City, UT 84108.
© 2007 Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen