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Friend Honoring Legacy of 9/11 Victim

By Kevin Mulligan

(December 17, 2003) - On September 7, 2001, at a Fresh Fields supermarket, David Sylvester heard the familiar voice of his close friend, Kevin Bowser shouting a hearty Yo! - from the express checkout aisle.

"I hadn't seen him in a while; we were both so busy, and with him commuting to New York every day," Sylvester says. "We got caught up and I looked forward to seeing him again that Sunday [at a post-Labor Day party]. Unfortunately, something came up and I couldn't make it."

Sylvester never would see his best friend, role model and neighborhood mentor again. Two days after the picnic, Bowser, 45, a computer whiz, was working at Marsh & McLennan's technology division on the 97th floor of the World Trade Center's North Tower. He never made it out, after the crash of hijacked American Airlines Flight 11 brought the building down among the dark soot of Sept. 11 terrorism in New York City.

"He meant the world to me," Sylvester says. "He was a great example of how to live and conduct myself."

Sylvester would find himself awed and moved by the number of fortysomething men, all friends of the devoted father, community leader and peewee football coach, crying at Bowser's memorial service.

Sylvester, 9 years younger than Bowser, was one of them.

"You think you know someone real well like I did Kevin, growing up together [in Kingsessing]," Sylvester says. "But seeing that really affected me. It showed the impact he had on so many people's lives, not just mine."

He can't remember when, exactly, it hit him during the sad yet uplifting celebration of Bowser's life. But Sylvester recalls leaving the service knowing Bowser's imprint on the lives of many would not end in death.

"I decided, 'It can't end here,' " he says. " 'He can't die here.' "

Sylvester, 38, a personal trainer/fitness guru and community volunteer to the young and aged, thinks big and out of the box, with no such words in his vocabulary as "can't" or "impossible." Think African-American Pat Croce on a bicycle, with the same astounding drive, energy and will to help people overcome obstacles.

The Central High/Temple University product thought long and deep in the solitude that followed Bowser's death, and kept coming back to one question: How could Bowser best be remembered? The answer came one busy workday, while Sylvester pedaled from World Gym (20th & Sansom) to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, where he volunteers in geriatrics.

"Kevin was leaving his mark on our community, and I always wanted to ride my bike across the United States," Sylvester says. "It just hit me. I'd ride for Kevin, to continue his impact on kids and his community."

The Kevin Bowser Scholarship Fund, administered by the renowned Philadelphia Foundation, was born. Months later, in the summer of 2002, there was Sylvester, biking 55 days and more than 3,000 miles across America to launch his fund-raising effort, with little media attention.

Largely through word of mouth, roughly $10,000 was raised - unfortunately, without needed corporate backing - toward a scholarship that someday soon will start sending deserving John Bartram High seniors to college in memory of Bowser, a star athlete at the Southwest Philly school. He returned home proud, yet feeling he needed to do more. Support was lukewarm, before and after. Which brings us to now.

On Jan. 17, he will tackle Tour d'Afrique 2004, an approximately 7,000-mile, 10-country, 120-day, life-changing odyssey. It will take him, with 32 others ranging in age from 19 to 62, on two wheels from Cairo, Egypt, to Cape Town, South Africa, through big-game reserves and over the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro.

He will pedal the perimeter of Botswana's Kalihari Desert and experience the biblical landscape of Ethiopia's Simian Mountains. While the Tour's global mission is to promote human-powered transportation, AIDS awareness and a healthier environment, Sylvester's goals go beyond that: He is hopeful that his journey through Africa will hit home in his African-American community in more ways than just fund-raising in Bowser's name.

"I'm doing it because Kevin meant that much to me and his family was very instrumental in making me who I am today," Sylvester says. "I'm also trying to show kids and everybody that whatever it is you want to do, if you put your mind to it, you can do it. That's what Kevin was about. I want kids in our community to realize that the world's bigger than your block or your 'hood in Philly. I thought I knew a lot about the United States and geography, but the trip across the country absolutely blew my mind.

It made me realize that, for all the things that are screwed up in this nation, it's a huge, beautiful America out there. And I just want kids to understand that not only can they do it, no matter their station in life, but that they can come back to something and make it better."

Ask Sylvester about the massive undertaking and preparation for such a journey, and he chuckles. He will be among strangers in a foreign land, battling blazing temperatures, and warding off diarrhea and viruses that can cause diphtheria, hepatitis, typhoid or malaria.

"I'm pretty much just going to show up in Cairo the day it starts," he says. "I ride everywhere I go and I know from doing America, sort of, what's involved. I wish I could go over early, get familiar with the country a little, but honestly, I can't afford to."

He's too busy working while making phone calls in his spare minutes, introducing himself and his mission and pleading for corporate support.

"About all I know is hot days and cool nights," he jokes. "I'm pretty much, yeah, you said it, winging it."

Sylvester, strictly a serious cycling amateur, will spend much of his time during the 100 cycling days (broken up by 20 days of rest) riding alone, but accompanied by support vehicles assisting with mechanical and medical needs. Two meals a day will be provided by the organizers. His size will not help. At 6-3, 260, the muscle-bound Sylvester looks like an NFL middle linebacker, almost 100 pounds heavier than the average serious cyclist.

The plan for the Tour is to cover an average of 65 miles from first light until early afternoon, when the heat becomes unbearable, forcing the riders to set up roadside camps (netted tents, sleeping bags). The pack will be escorted by some security, but largely will be on its own. The Bowser family is deeply touched by Sylvester's efforts, especially considering the risks.

"We're proud of all he's doing," says Kevin's 47-year-old twin, Kelvin. "It's really hard to comprehend what he's about to undertake, but we're in full support of him. His ride across America was just tremendous, but this . . . in Kevin's name . . . we're honored that he thinks of Kevin in those terms. I just can't believe that he's going to go from the top of Africa to the bottom."

To do so, he's using donations from friends and his personal savings to pay for his round-trip airfare to Africa; the $8,000 entry fee, which covers basic needs; and approximately $2,000 for a reliable, 21-speed mountain bike. The largest support to date has come from his friends at Blank Rome LLP, Price Communications and About Your Smile Dental in Center City.

Can't fathom Sylvester's undertaking? You're not alone. Consider that the Tour de France lasts 3 weeks and covers just 2,077 miles, less than one-third the distance of the Tour d'Afrique.

"It's not about the physical, it's about the mental," he says. Sylvester says he thinks that finishing will make him the first African-American to traverse North America and Africa on a bicycle. Unlike Lance Armstrong and other Tour de France heroes, Sports Illustrated covers will not await the finishers at Cape Town. Neither will endorsements. Without corporate support, Sylvester will return home almost broke.

That is not an issue.

"I don't care about that," he says. "I look at it as an opportunity and an experience of a lifetime."

Sylvester tells the story of being physically spent in the first week of his trip across America and walking the last half-mile to the top of the Grand Tetons in Wyoming.

"I threw my bike down and I had nothing left," he says. "And just when I thought I couldn't go on, one of the guys who had made it ahead of me told me to turn around. I saw all of Wyoming like a blanket below me, from Jackson Hole to as far as I could see. And I remembered where I came from and why, because my friend is dead, and suddenly no mountain was too high for me. I couldn't wait for the next one.

"The feeling of fulfillment and doing something so positive, all by myself, in Kevin's name, was just indescribable. And I knew I was going to feel the same way at the top of every other mountain."

It was the view and the moment, he says, that changed him. That's what he wants kids in every neighborhood and playground and high school in Philly to feel. Somehow. Some way. It wasn't about the bike or the mountain, it was about setting his mind to doing something and accomplishing it.

It's the same goal he brings into this journey.

"I'm not going to build a bigger mousetrap," he says. "I'm not going to design a supercomputer for Bill Gates or something like that. What I can do is ride a bike. What I can do is tell somebody I'm going to do something, and I'm going to do it. What I can do is show people what your will, your desire and your passion can accomplish.

"If somebody reads this or hears what I'm doing and decides to help change the world in their little way, then I've reached someone. If a company reads this or hears what I'm doing and gets behind it and endorses me, another kid can become part of a mentoring program or go to college. That's the important thing, and that's how Kevin lives on."