Anyone who spent time at Winnebago during the 1990s undoubtedly has fond memories of Uncle Sabi Szilágyi, who worked at camp nearly every summer between 1991 and 2000. Uncle Sabi was a giant of the staff. He taught numerous activities, including athletics, boating & canoeing, and campcraft. He was an activity head and section leader. He also led nearly every trip Winnebago offers.
Sabi died at the age of 42 in his hometown of Debrecen, Hungary, where he had spent many years as an educator and school principal. He had obtained an advanced degree at the University of Debrecen (formerly known as Kossuth, the namesake of Sabi’s ASL team).
My own relationship with Sabi spanned the entire course of his time at camp. In 1991, Sabi was my counselor on the Mount Tumbledown trip, a pairing I’m grateful for to this day. After a jarring experience on Mount Saddleback the previous summer, I was terrified of camping, and I remember vomiting in the Greenhouse before leaving for Tumbledown. Yet in the course of three days, Sabi (along with his co-counselor Lori Hubbard) completely flipped my opinion of trips. I’m sure they both could sense how terrified I was, and through a balance of self-assured leadership and distracting fun (namely a running cookie joke and Sabi’s nonstop loop of Chicago’s Greatest Hits 1982-1989 in the van), they managed to create an exciting yet nurturing atmosphere for all of us 11-year-olds. I should also point out that Sabi was only 19 at the time. The next summer, I had Sabi again on a Moose River trip, thus cementing camping as one of my favorite aspects of Winnebago.
In 1998, I returned to camp as an 18-year-old counselor and lucked out beyond belief to have Sabi as my activity head at boating & canoeing. Sabi had an ease about him that always made others feel relaxed and comfortable. He was an intellectual, a nerd even—his doctorate was in Canadian theater, for crying out loud. He was also a good listener and a careful thinker, and thus an excellent leader. Among the staff, he was universally respected. He wasn’t a “celebrity counselor” who was the loudest voice on the stage or a ballfield. Rather, he led by example. If you wanted to know how to be a Winnebago counselor, you just had to watch how Sabi did it. It made perfect sense that he’d go on to be a school principal.
In 2001, I traveled to Debrecen and visited Sabi and his family at their home and met many of his university colleagues, most of whom were huge Anglophiles like Sabi. It would be the last time I’d see him, although we remained in touch through email and later Facebook.
The Internet has made us accustomed to receiving news almost the minute it occurs. But in the case of Sabi, this did not happen. Sabi actually died in January 2014, roughly four years before the publication of this remembrance. Few, if any, Winnebagans knew.
At the time of his death, Sabi hadn’t been to camp in over a decade, but the world is full of Winnebagans who knew and admired him. Perhaps he led them on a trip, or taught them to eskimo roll in a kayak. Perhaps he was their section head, or ASL captain, or the guy they walked around Portland with on a day off. No matter how these many hundreds of Winnebagans knew Sabi, I’m confident they are grateful to have crossed paths with him. He exemplified kindness, maturity, and grace. He will be deeply missed by many but forgotten by none.