By: Sid Salter
Earlier this month, a gentle, intellectual giant died and it’s likely that few among her university colleagues and friends in Douglasville, Georgia knew they were in the presence of a Hall of Fame athlete.
Just as likely, many residents of Sylvia’s hometown of Forest, Mississippi, were unaware that she was a renowned scholar, educator, traveler and writer.
Sylvia Howell Krebs, Ph.D., died Jan. 12 in Baptist Hospital in Jackson following complications from abdominal surgery. She was 83.
As a young newspaper publisher in Forest in 1983, I met her father, Mr. Sam Howell, at a Rotary Club meeting. A tall, angular man with a soft drawl befitting his Zebulon, Georgia roots, Mr. Sam settled in Forest when he was 18 in 1919 to take a job with the Bienville Lumber Company.
He would later work in the Smith Tarrer Wholesale Grocery Company. In 1935, Howell and wife, Mary Sue, bought the old Lod Moore place a little south of the town of Forest. He farmed the picturesque place as long as he was able until his death in 1990.
Mr. Sam liked the simple life. He worked and he farmed, he worshiped at the Forest United Methodist Church, and he went to Rotary Club meetings. At Rotary when we asked, he would tell us about his daughters, Sylvia and Margaret Ann. Other than that, he was a man of few words.
Sylvia became strong helping her father on that farm – and like him, she grew tall and angular. Like him, there was no quit in her. She played basketball at Forest High School from 1952-55.
In 1954 and 1955, the Forest High School women’s basketball team won 81 straight games behind the dominating play of Sylvia Howell. She was All-State four straight years, scored 4,205 career points, and was merciless against arch-rival Morton High, pouring in an average of 30 points a game.
She was also a state high school doubles champion in tennis in 1955 – and salutatorian of the 1955 FHS class. Her athletic and academic success continued at the next level at Belhaven College in Jackson from 1956-59, where she won All-Star honors in basketball.
Her exploits on the hardwood and the tennis courts landed her in the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Belhaven University Sports Hall of Fame in 1996. She was an inaugural member of the Scott County Sports Hall of Fame in 2015.
Sylvia earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history at Belhaven. In 1966, she would earn a doctoral degree in U.S. History at the University of Alabama. As noted in her obituary, Sylvia’s doctoral dissertation examined early post-Civil War Reconstruction in Alabama.
Her teaching career began after Belhaven at Yazoo City High School but would carry Sylvia to schools and colleges in Alabama, Georgia, Taiwan, and China. Sylvia joined the faculty at West Georgia College in 1968, where she met and would marry a colleague, Ed Krebs.
Ed’s scholarly passion was Chinese history, a passion that Sylvia shared. Beginning in the early 1970s, they taught and traveled in Taiwan and later the People’s Republic of China in the 1980s. There, Sylvia taught language, culture, and literature to Chinese students.
Over the last 20 years, the couple led travel tours to China. Sylvia wrote a book called “How Am I to Touch With You” about her experiences living and working in China during a pivotal time in the country’s history.
Married 50 years, Sylvia and Ed never lost touch with friends and family in Forest or with Mr. Sam’s lovely little farm, which they used as a retreat. Despite the remarkable life they lived, Ed and Sylvia made time for school and church reunions and worshiping at her dad’s beloved Methodist church.
Like the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I published a number of articles Sylvia wrote about her experiences in China in the Scott County Times. Her byline identified her as the “Times China Correspondent.”
What a marvelous life well-lived! I will miss her, as will people of a certain generation in Forest – and in the China she likewise loved.