Sheldon S. Pavel, 74, the longtime principal of Philadelphia’s Central High school, died of cancer Sunday, Feb. 7, at home in Elkins Park.
For nearly 30 years, Dr. Pavel was Central High, perhaps Philadelphia’s most storied school, the second-oldest public school in the nation, opened in 1836. On his watch, the school doubled its size, became more diverse, and kept high academic standards — a testament not only to his leadership, Dr. Pavel would say, but also to the limitless potential of the city’s students and his faith in them.
Dr. Pavel was born in West Philadelphia and attended Bryant Elementary at 60th and Cedar and Akiba Hebrew Academy in Bala Cynwyd.
He earned his undergraduate degree from Temple University, a master’s degree from Southern Illinois University, and a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania.
He spent his career in the Philadelphia School District: first as an English teacher at Audenried High School, then as an administrator at George Washington High, before being appointed Central’s 13th president in 1984.
It was a tumultuous time for the school: A judge had just ordered the previously all-male Central to accept female students..
Dr. Pavel set the tone early, welcoming young women and everyone else, relishing the school’s diversity.
Gregarious, smart, and funny, Dr. Pavel had an open-door policy. And he knew the name of everyone at Central, no small feat in a school that swelled to over 2,000 students during his tenure.
“He made you feel that you knew him personally. He was so impactful,” said Cynthia Lech, executive director of Central’s alumni association and a 2004 graduate of the school.
Dr. Pavel spent much of his day in classrooms and hallways, stopping to chat or joke with students, or talk to them about classes. He attended plays and games.
“There was Dr. Pavel in the hallway with his pipe and his jacket, and there was Shelly on the field, cheering at the Thanksgiving game,” said Rayna Guy, a 2003 graduate Pavel encouraged to become a teacher.
He was honest about the challenges she would face, connecting hisexperiences of anti-Semitism to hers as a Black woman.
“He said, ‘It’s going to be tough, people are going to challenge you and question you,’ ” said Guy. But she always knew that he believed in her and in every Central student.
Dr. Pavel was a mentor to many, including Chris Lehmann, the principal of Science Leadership Academy. When Lehmann was a young principal, Dr. Pavel was generous with his time, offering advice when Lehmann asked for it.
Once, when Dr. Pavel visited Lehmann’s school, the two principals decided to walk to pick up lunch.
“You couldn’t even try to have a conversation with Shelly if you were on a walk in Philadelphia, because you were just going to get interrupted every 10 yards by a Central alum who just wanted to say hello or thank you to him,” said Lehmann. “It was amazing.”
Dr. Pavel retired in 2012 as the longest-serving president in Central’s history.
“I’ve really been blessed,” he told The Inquirer at the time. “I’ve had the opportunity to serve young people over the years, and they are the most extraordinary group of young people.”
His successor, Tim McKenna, looked up to Dr. Pavel, he said.
“He was a tremendous listener, he was empathetic, he was student-centered,” said McKenna. “He was a visionary.”
But as much as he loved Central, closest to his heart was his family. Dr. Pavel was married for 40 years to his wife, Paula, whom he met through a colleague at Washington High. The two went to Jack’s Deli in the Northeast for their first date, and stayed up until 2 a.m. talking.
Paula Pavel said she knew then that they were meant to be. His daughter, Shani Bardach, said he was a devoted father.
“He devoted a lot of time and energy to Central, but to me it didn’t feel like it came at the expense of time and energy for me,” Bardach said. “He would drop anything if I needed him.”
Dr. Pavel was a prodigious reader and a dyed-in-the-wool Philadelphia sports fan. He hosted legendary poker games, and loved travel and taking walks with his wife.
His illness was swift — Dr. Pavel was diagnosed with cancer only three weeks before his death — but even as he weakened, he remained steadfast in his affection.
“My kids would reach out to give him a kiss and he could barely speak, but he’d say, ‘I love you,’” said Bardach. “He reached out for their hands at the end.”
Along with his wife and daughter, Dr. Pavel is survived by stepdaughterAriel Broido and two grandchildren.
Donations may be made in his memory to the Associated Alumni of Central High School, P.O. Box 26580, Philadelphia, Pa. 19141.