‘Sacred space:’ an ode to John Kavalos

John Kavalos was rarely seen walking the halls of Princeton High School without his black trench and scarf. If you joined him on a school trip to the Met, you could never go again without pondering things in a different way. He was pleasantly sarcastic, which may have veiled his compassion but never hindered his good advice. Kavalos loved painting, sketching, Johnny Walker Black Label, El Greco, sports and Korean cinema.

Beyond his likes and memorable attributes, Kavalos was a teacher – the kind who made an imprint on your sense of the world whether you sat in his art class or beside him at dinner.

Last Monday, Kavalos, Princeton High School’s long-time art and AP art history teacher, passed away after undergoing routine bypass surgery three days prior. Thursday, some colleagues sat around a table in the school’s main office, their backs to a large and empty fireplace, to honor the memory of a friend. What began as a formal interview quickly turned to just a few guys sharing good stories of a great man.

English teacher Doug Levandowski, social studies teacher John Baxter former PHS social studies teacher Saladin Ambar, a current Lehigh University poli-sci professor, emerged from class before day’s end to join Principal Gary Snyder at the front of the school. Their demeanors, at first dour, soon became remedied by the many eccentric anecdotes Kavalos’ spirited existence had provided.

“He was a deeply romantic person in the broadest sense of the word,” voiced Ambar, who remained close friends with Kavalos after leaving Princeton. “Sometimes, he’d just say, ‘It’s New Year’s Eve, let’s go to Venice!’ He thought art was a model for life, a vehicle for living.”

“John always helped his students be in touch with who they are, never going down that conveyor belt,” Baxter said. “I don’t think there was ever a time I walked into his studio-classroom when he didn’t have students there just hanging out.”

“There was a way he saw interaction, the human experience, that was almost,” Levandowski paused, “almost sacred. One time, I confided in him about some difficult things going on in my life. I went on and told him the whole story, and he replied, ‘Before I say anything else, I just want to say you have honored me by telling me this.’”

Kavalos’ father was a Greek Orthodox priest. Ambar voiced how, though no one would consider Kavalos a religious man, he seemed to worship the human spirit.

“He loved Greek and religious iconography – all iconography for that matter. He loved the human form, especially in religious paintings. He was moved by Christ depicted in art and Pagan art,” Ambar said.

Both Levandowski and Ambar had the pleasure of attending Kavalos’ field trips to the MET with his students.

“He knew everything about everything,” Levandowski praised. “You’d walk into any room – the Japanese Tea Garden – and he knew every detail.”

“John looked at everything as art, always questioning and conveying. He’d point to the ‘Ann Taylor’ sign and ask his students, ‘Why does that look that way? What is lettering telling you about beauty?’” Ambar continued. “His students always told me John taught them how to see; he changed them as people.”

In the early morning hours of Dec. 30, as Kavalos readied for his upcoming surgery, he wrote on Facebook:

“Very odd time for me this final week before surgery. Lots of interaction with the hospital staff for pre-operative procedures, etc … And then walking (if able) out to the car and home. It’s as if the inevitability of the seriousness of what I’ll be going through has yet to hit me (or given my past brush with surgical mortality) … Please forgive me the lateness of telling you all this – I’m still kind of reeling from your expressions of kindness and support. You shame me by your love.”

During his 20 years at Princeton High School, Kavalos crafted a legacy that will continue to enlighten his students, colleagues and community through art. Sixteen years ago, Kavalos transformed an abandoned storage area into the first student-run professional art gallery in the nation. Called Numina, the gallery curates student and area artist exhibitions, organizes poetry readings and hosts film series. It is now recognized as one of the most prestigious art institutions in the state.

Numina is Latin for “sacred space.”

“John’s calling was communicating art to his students. He was brilliant, and I do not use that word a lot,” Ambar said. “His passing marks another kind of passing. John’s wonderful and eccentric teaching cannot be put into a box tied to test scores or technological assessment. John defies that. He was a master teacher and to be in his presence was remarkable.”

About Erica Chayes Wida

Erica Chayes Wida is a writer, mom, and complete zealot when it comes to poetry, paella and globe collections. After graduating with a degree in Anthropology from UCLA, Erica moved to Italy where the seasons and old architecture inspired her journey back to the East Coast. Since then, she and her husband have created a nest egg locally and, over time, developed a rather grand love affair with the town of Princeton. Erica is senior editor at The Princeton Sun and enjoys fulfilling her Princeton affections on a daily basis. | View all posts by Erica Chayes Wida