A Good Man Has Left Us


March 23, 2012

Allan Stevo

On March 22, 2012, Pastor Štefan Jakoby passed away.

This man was not a famous man.  He was a pastor in a Slovak village.  This man was not a perfect man.  He smoked like a village smokehouse the night after a pig killing.

This man, however, did me a favor and did everyone who loves this website a favor.  In doing so, he became my friend and would come to earn my most loyal admiration.  In the autumn of 2002, I ventured into my late grandfather’s village in northern Slovakia for what I planned would be my first and only trip to that village.  I was teaching in Bratislava and had planned to spend a year in Slovakia before returning promptly to the U.S.

I had a checklist to tend to during my year in Slovakia, and after 6 weeks I was speaking enough Slovak that I figured it was time to see my grandfather’s village to check it off my list.  I wanted to attend service in the church my grandfather was baptized in and to just get a quick feel for this sleepy village.  At least I would then always be able to say that I had been there. A friend of a friend put me up for the weekend and dropped me off in the village a few minutes before the Sunday morning church service began.  He agreed to pick me up a few minutes after the service ended.

Just before the service was to start, I walked into the church sheepishly and sat down.  There were only women in the church during the somber service.  One of them felt compelled to share her hymnal with me (something I was very grateful for) and to whisper to me throughout the service (something that I was incredibly embarrassed about).  Old hunched over women with covered heads gave me (the stranger) dirty looks.  The more they stared at me, the more embarrassed I became that this woman was audibly whispering to me during the service.

To add to the embarrassment of the whispers, this small congregation had no organist that day.  It had only the pastor who would speak to the congregation from the front, then walk through the back of the church in his long robe, climb up the stairs to sing and play the organ, before crossing the length of the church once again and up into the pulpit where he would stand to address the congregation.  Back and forth repeatedly.  It felt like he crossed that church half a dozen times that Sunday morning to address the congregation from the pulpit and then to play the organ for a hymn or antiphon.  After each song, there was a great silence for some 45 seconds as the pastor came down from the loft and you could imagine my embarrassment to hear only the footsteps of the pastor through the empty old church and the whispers of my neighbor. I felt like a corrupting and disruptive visitor.

The dirty looks continued throughout the service and the reason for them became clearer to me when the service ended.  Only women sit downstairs in that church, I realized.  Men sit upstairs.  I had been violating the tradition of that village by sitting among the women.  The men came down, several dozen of them, after the service.  A few men greeted me and perhaps ready to settle in for a lengthy discussion, asked how I came to the church service in this isolated village.  I looked at the time and saw that my host was probably outside waiting for me.  In the best Slovak I could, I talked briefly – for perhaps two minutes – my name, a little about myself quickly, where I was from, how I got there, how long I was staying, explained that I needed to leave, and I then proceeded to do so.  I couldn’t, after all, keep my very generous hosts rudely waiting for me outside.

It had been a good 50 minute visit to this town, and it was time to put the village of my grandfather behind me.  I had seen my roots. I had gotten to know them quickly, even had an interesting little time and a story to share about the whispering woman, the dirty looks, and the mistake of sitting downstairs in the women’s section.  The trip’s goal had been met.  Out in the damp autumn air, my ride to the nearby city was waiting for me and I was walking towards them, ready to leave that village that my grandfather had left some eighty years prior.

But someone else had other intentions for me. I was intercepted making my way through the muddle of people in the entryway.  The pastor, who I did not want to bother, sought me out.  People moved out of the way and it was suddenly just him and me face-to-face.  The black robed, tenor voice of Štefan Jakoby spoke.

Without introduction, he said to me in English: “You are not Allan Stevo.”

“How had this man learned my name?” I wondered.

He continued: “Allan Stevo was here 30 years ago.”

I surely looked even further shocked.   The pastor added “And Allan Stevo is not from Chicago; he is from Blue Island.”

It’s not often that a person 5,000 miles from Blue Island can distinguish the difference between it and its neighbor to the north.  It’s not often that a man you never met might approach you and say that he does not believe you are who you say you are.

The pastor spoke of my father, also named Allan Stevo.  We spoke for a few minutes, and he said a few things that made me feel very welcome there.  Because of that brief discussion that took place between the pastor and me, that village became a place that I could feel comfortable venturing to six months later for the Easter holiday.  I genuinely believe that I might never again have stepped foot in that village if it were not for him intercepting me as I hurried out of the church that morning.  After all, without the connection to the people there, that village, or any Slovak village, is nothing but a hard-to-reach, house-studded piece of land far-removed from anything you know.

Before I left, the pastor offered to find me a place to stay if I ever needed it.  When Easter came something compelled me to take him up on that offer.  He was true to his word. The relationships I’d developed that Easter further made that village a safe refuge for me – away from the strange city of Bratislava. Bratislava can sometimes feel like it’s big enough to lack human kindness, small enough to lack some of the desirable amenities of a city.  Ten years later, that village is still a paradise to me.

Every time I stepped foot in that village for the next 10 years, my first duty was to visit the pastor, the man who had opened an important door to Slovak culture for me.

Those visits were visits with an intellectual.  He never obtained great position in the world, but he was the village pastor of Slovak tradition – the educated man of God who understands the world, who opens proverbial doors for others, who educates others, and maintains contact that extend far beyond the next few villages that share the same valley.  Never did I step foot into his house without being awed.

Slovaks regularly impress me with their ability to look at the world from a different perspective.  Štefan Jakoby was that par excellence.  My mind was inspired in his presence, even on short visits.  We discussed, and I learned.  He was provocative and full of insight.  It would take me hundreds of pages to explain some of the things Štefan Jakoby has told me, as it sometimes felt like we were kindred spirits and we spoke to each other without the long preface that might often be required before a discussion got serious.  He was an astute observer of the world who taught me much.  There was not an area of intellectual inquiry that could offend me coming out of his mouth.

Štefan Jakoby brought me into a safe place and then kicked me out of the nest. It wasn’t the baptism by fire of Bratislava.  I flew from one nest into another in that safe village that Jakoby introduced me to.

Two people more than any other paved the way for me through Slovak culture – one pushing me to learn the language, the other, pushing me to make friends with strangers in my ancestral village, to learn my own history, to understand what was happening around me.  One of them died this week and I will miss him so.

In me his spirit lives.  I imagine that there are dozens of other people who grew up in that village and would say the same.  A very good man has left us and I’m sorry that I was not at his side to say goodbye, but nothing that takes place on a deathbed or at a funeral can make up for the great joy that I’ve had in his company during his life.

A friend of mine, a long-time expatriate in Slovakia, once told me to “celebrate life with the living,” and as long as I do so, to never worry about hurrying great distances for a funeral to be with the dead.  That I did with Pan Farrar Jakoby.  May his life live through me as it lives through others.

Before the sun rose, on the morning of March 22, 2012, before the cock’s first crow, Štefan Jakoby left this world at 3:30 a.m.

Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com.  He is from Chicago and spends most of his time travelling Europe and writing.  You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com.  If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email.  You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.

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  • Loved this story – what a beautiful person and you wrote a lovely tribute to him.

    OK now tell us the name of the village!!!!!
    Did you find living relatives there?

  • Marycay Doolittle

    Mar 29th, 2012

    Lovely story. How fortunate for you.

  • Marycay,
    Thank you for the kind words. Very fortunate.

  • I almost feel ashamed that a person from a foreign country has such an interest and detailed knoledge about my own birthplace. Much greater that mine ever was, at least while I was living there. I always considered myself a “global” person, not so much a Slovak. Your writings are very inspirational and make me realize what a treasure my heritage is. Thank you for that!

  • Livia,
    Thank you for pointing this out to me. I’m only sharing my thoughts on Slovakia, but if in the process I’m pointing out some positive aspects of Slovakia to you, then heck, that makes what I’m doing all the more worth my time.


  • Phil Schmidt

    Mar 29th, 2012

    He truly sounds like a wonderful person. Was his parish in Oravska Poruba? Wasn’t that the village of the writer Kakucin? I wonder if they knew one another.

  • Phil and Helene,
    Thank you for the kind words. Jasenova is the name of the village in which this good man lived.

  • Phil Schmidt

    Mar 29th, 2012

    I guess that the pastor couldn’t have known Kakucin since he died in the 1920s. Pastor Jakoby comes across as a kind and learned man who must have been a similar treasure to his community.

  • Phil,
    You are right on both counts – two young to know Kukucin, but still a treasure to his community.


  • Yes, a very warm tribute to your dear friend, Allan. You’re lucky to have known even the village from where your grandparents were from !! It would be interesting to know why your parents moved from northern Slovakia to western Slovakia.

  • Thank you, Cynthia.

    One branch of the family came from the West and the other came from the North. They moved from their villages to Chicago, accomplishing a feat that continues to boggle my mind. I still can’t imagine what it took to take such a long trip so long ago.


  • Ethel Ann Smith

    Apr 2nd, 2012

    Allan —
    What an eloquent tribute to Pan Farrar Jakoby. It was a wonderful and beautifully written story. Quite touching.

  • Ethel Ann,
    Thank you for the kind words.

  • What a surprise to find an epitaph for Pastor Jakoby here! I come from Dolný Kubín a town few kilommetres away from his Jasenová. I cannot say I knew him well, but we have met due to our mutual appreciation for our local culture. We both interpreted some classical poems in events organised by the local library. I also was a classmate of his grand-daughter. Indeed, Pastor Jakoby was a very respectable and well respected man in the community.

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