Columbus, Ohio USA
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Larry and Sylvia Totzke
Short North heroes start anew in Portland
By Margaret Marten
July/August 2015 Issue

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Sylvia and Larry Totzke Photo Gus Brunsman III

A Short North couple honored in April for their generous spirit and service within the community are now living out of state after selling their home on East Third Avenue and moving to Portland, Oregon, to be closer to family.

Larry and Sylvia Totzke were presented with an Unsung Hero Award at the Ninth Annual Short North Gala along with Julie Hallan and Daniel Koch, each recognized for their contribution to the artistry, diversity, community, and spirit of the Short North Arts District.

The Totzkes moved to the Short North in 2000. They grew up in the Pittsburgh area, later residing in Indianapolis, and relocated to Columbus in 1978 after a job change. Over the years, the couple had thought about entering into missionary work after Larry’s retirement from the Defense Logistics Agency (where he worked as a civilian in human resources), and the opportunity later presented itself through their church, Grace Brethren. With the objective of helping another couple, Mindi and Mike Jentes, begin a house church movement here, they relocated from Gahanna to the Short North in 2000 and launched The Quest.

“We thought if you can’t start a church and do something here in the United States where you know the language and you know the culture,” Larry explained, “how in the world are you going to be able to do it overseas? And so this became, if you will, our ‘mission field.’”

It also became their home, and after arriving here, the pair joyfully turned their attention to building relationships and volunteering for neighborhood organizations to help the community.

“The first time I walked into an Italian Village Society meeting, there were just a few people there and they looked so tired because they had been at it for so long,” said Sylvia. “And they welcomed us with open arms, like ‘Please, come be a part of what we’re doing,’ and that was just so encouraging.”

Although attendance was low at that time, the IVS grew under the vigorous leadership of its officers, including the Totzkes and Mike Jentes. “We’ve worked really hard to get the neighborhood involved,” said Larry. “The society has become a really important organization because we’ve worked a lot with city government. We’ve worked a lot within the community to keep people apprised of what’s going on. We have rallied behind issues.”

Stephanie Harris, current treasurer of the IVS, believes the city and developers now understand who they are dealing with as a result of Larry’s persistence in maintaining relations with them. We are “an interested, active group of people who are concerned about what happens to that neighborhood and who are going to ask questions.” She noted that long-term, not short-term interests were his objective. “I think that is what Larry had at heart,” she said. “He interacted in ways that were in the best interest of people he really thought he was responsible to serve.”

Larry also forged better partnerships between the Italian Village Commission and the Italian Village Society, according to Jentes “Whether it’s in the big things or the small things, Larry’s attention to detail and seeking to do things right is just impeccable,” he said.

Sylvia, meanwhile, who had made her mark over the years as a school teacher, army officer, and sales manager while assuming a variety of roles in the church, including missions chairman, office administrator and organist (for 40 years), began working for International Friendships on the OSU campus shortly after their arrival. When funding for that position dried up two years later, she volunteered for the Victorian Village Society (now the Short North Civic Association), helping with the home tours before becoming their first administrator upon the recommendation of Zoe Johnstone.

“I thought Sylvia had the right demeanor for any organizational job,” said Johnstone. “I signed her up for a gig with Bebe Miller Dance and then put her up to the job.” It was while working with the society that Sylvia connected with the SNBA (now the Short North Alliance) and was later hired as their Business and Visitor Services Coordinator, a position she held for a decade, up until the move to Portland.

“I’ve been walking the streets for them for ten years,” said Sylvia. “I loved it. I really enjoy meeting people and getting to know what they’re about.” John Angelo became director shortly after she started, and for awhile they worked as a team. “People would say, what do you do?,” Sylvia said, “I'd say I just do anything John tells me to do!”

The Totzkes operated The Quest ministry until Mike and Mindi Jentes moved to California in 2008. Larry, who had a lifelong dream to become ordained and to serve as a pastor of a church, finally realized that dream during this period, acquiring his license and ordination. Capital City Grace Church opened in the Arena Grand Movie Theater in 2009 (now located in Grandview) and Larry launched the church as co-pastor with Eric Miller.

The Totzkes were also involved – and remain so – with the international mission agency Encompass World Partners. “Their leadership in Encompass has been really key over the years,“ said Jentes. Sylvia played a vital role in hand-in-hand work in the orphan schools developed through church-to-church partnerships between the U.S. and Central Africa as a result of the AIDS crisis and wars.

The couple’s decision to move was prompted primarily by the pull of family, the desire to be closer to Sylvia’s sister in Seattle (their only remaining relative), but it was also influenced by the fact that selling the house now made good sense. “We just felt like from a real estate perspective now was the time,” said Larry. More importantly, they recognized that the community was growing, and along with that growth comes the strength and knowledge to move forward. “From a personal perspective, both of us just looked at one another and said ‘I think our work here is finished.’”

The diversity of the Short North, which makes the neighborhood so attractive and welcoming, was a bonus for the Totzkes. “I’ve really appreciated the fact that I can be a good friend, not only to young people, but to people my age and everything in between,” said Sylvia. “We all generally speak the same language,” added Larry, “but we’re different kinds of people, and just learning the differences about people and coming to really love and respect and enjoy them has been a real growth experience and a really joyous one.”

The Unsung Hero Award was a timely, well-deserved honor for the Totzkes. One could say their “mission field” is not just a place like the Short North but life in general and wherever that presents itself. “Our plans are to build new relationships and build new friendships,” said Larry. “We kind of believe that God is going to show us what he wants us to do out there, and we’re open to whatever that is.”

Contact email for the Totzkes is ltotzke46@gmail.com

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