Earlville, N.Y. — Students hear his name in the classroom. Stories about him are swapped in the dining halls.
Walk through the dark gray double doors of the Sherburne-Earlville high school, and you’ll pass underneath his photo. He’s the youngest one up on the school’s “Wall of Fame.”
Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick hasn’t been back to his tiny rural hometown much since his election.
But that doesn’t mean his presence isn’t felt here — quite the opposite, in fact, according to Jonathan Sherry, one of Myrick’s former teachers.
“Svante has taken on this heroic role-modeling for countless students,” said Sherry, who has known Myrick, now 27, since Myrick was in fifth grade.
“Teachers use his example, even if they haven’t met him, as: Every student deserves our 110 percent, because you just don’t know where they’re going in this world … He’s almost become this myth.”
In Ithaca, Myrick may be embattled over affordable housing projects and storm-water system costs. Back in his hometown, though, a different picture quickly emerged.
Sherry described a ripple effect from Myrick’s meteoric rise to mayor on his small hometown. The impact of the mayor’s success is still being felt, Sherry said, about 10 years after Myrick left it for his freshman year at Cornell.
“He just leaves this trail, and students, teachers and the community at large … are really using it as fuel,” Sherry said in an interview with The Voice earlier this month.
“He’s created this unwavering sense of optimism — of saying, ‘You know what, we’re doing some things right in our very rural, very small, very quaint, very charming community.’ ”
“He’s the small town boy who made it big”
For many Ithacans, Myrick’s story is well-told.
There was a rush of media attention particularly after his mayoral election in 2011. His rise from homelessness as a youth to mayoral fame at age 24 has been told on The Huffington Post, NBC’s Rock Center, The Root and elsewhere.
But there’s another place Myrick’s story is told. It’s a small convenience store off of Main Street in Sherburne, which abuts Myrick’s hometown of Earlville. Myrick stocked groceries there and checked through inventories when he was in high school.
The store’s owner has seen countless of his student-age workers come and go. One was different.
“Svante’s the small town boy who made it big,” said Jim Fowler, owner of the “Big M.” “You could always tell he was going places.”
Fowler rummages through a mahogany desk in the back office of the store. He pulls out a newspaper, slowly unfolds it and then holds it up: It’s a spread of Myrick, arms crossed, on the front page of The Syracuse Post-Standard.
Fowler’s been holding onto the copy of the story since it was published.
“We all keep track of him,” Fowler said. “People here are rooting for him.”
Impact in the home, around the office
Jennifer Britton has children in the Sherburne-Earlville School District. She doesn’t know Myrick personally, but said she has used him in conversations with her kids.
“We’re proud of his accomplishments, and have certainly watched his story,” Britton said of Myrick.
“I think he’s been a great example of success for my own children, when people from a small town can make it successfully.”
Myrick’s story isn’t just told in the home or by his former employer. William Excell, the mayor of Earlville, said he and his fellow co-workers at the regional Department of Transportation office frequently talk about the young Ithaca mayor more than 70 miles away.
“He’s an Earlville boy,” Excell said. “What he’s done is awesome.”
Excell said he plans to invite Myrick back to Earlville for a meet-and-greet.
“You’ve had people graduate from Earlville that have gone onto become a police officer, or something like that,” Excell said, “but nothing of this level.”
Not surprising, then, that Myrick’s grandparents say that they’re often hearing about him — when they go shopping, on the street, wherever.
“They ask, ‘Aren’t you proud? Aren’t you proud of Svante?,’ ” said his grandmother, Phyllis Raville, in an interview.
Myrick’s face sits on the Sherburne-Earlville “Wall of Fame” next to that of his grandfather, Wilber “Red” Raville. “Red” Raville taught music at Earlville-Sherburne for several decades.
The note on Myrick’s plaque features him thanking his mother, grandparents and hometown.
“Success … is community success,” reads Myrick’s quote. “There is no other kind.”
Sherry, Myrick’s teacher, said that this is the most important message he has drawn from Myrick’s rise.
“I think anytime that a small community is recognized for playing some type of role in the life of someone that seems to be blazing such a brilliant path, it feels good,” Sherry said. “I think the community felt empowered by it.”
Sherry ticked through the ways he makes Myrick’s example has been made a part of his curriculum.
When Myrick spoke out for medical marijuana, Sherry discussed it with his students. When the school moved to cut its “Talented and Gifted” program, of which Myrick was a member, Sherry cited Myrick as a reason not to do so. (The school eventually eliminated the program anyway.)
Sherry recently started a “photo adventure club” for Sherburne-Earlville students. Sometime after its launch, Myrick jumped into the swimming hole at the Robert H. Treman State Park for a charity event.
Someone captured the descent and created a time-lapse. It shows each step of Myrick’s fall into the frigid water below.
Back in the mayor’s hometown, Sherry noticed the time-lapse. He brought it with him to the photography club, and he riveted his students with a series of questions about the work’s meaning.
“How does that photo get created? What does that photo say about Svante? What does that say about politicians?,” Sherry recalled.
“I’m sure that Svante has no idea that something so serendipitous became something so poignant back in his hometown.”