SAN RAFAEL, Calif. — James R. Sylla, former president of Chevron's domestic oil and gas subsidiary, was eulogized Sunday as a chief executive who was as likely to be found chatting with refinery workers at company picnics as dining with the chairman of the board.
About 500 mourners crowded into the First United Methodist Church to pay tribute to Sylla, 53, a Kentfield resident and civic activist.
Sylla was killed along with three other Chevron executives and 39 other people in the Dec. 7 crash of Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 1771 near San Luis Obispo.
"What always impressed me about Jim was his unpretentiousness. Sometimes business executives by way of defense have a certain amount of persona. . . . But Jim had no persona," said Otto Butz, president of Golden Gate University in San Francisco, where Sylla was president of the board of trustees. "He was a simple, straight-forward, fair-minded man."
Standing before an altar decorated with Christmas poinsettias, the Rev. Betty Strathman Pagett spoke momentarily of the bitterness that possessed David Burke, a fired airline employee believed by the FBI to have smuggled a gun onto the flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco and may have brought the plane down by shooting the pilot and co-pilot.
Sylla's wife of 30 years, Ginger, and his three children, John, 28, Tom, 26, and Mary, 20, sat in the front pew as friends and family described how Sylla became one of Chevron's youngest presidents, while still finding time to walk the Marin County hillsides with his children. Sylla became president of Chevron U.S.A. in June, 1984.
"I was the best man at my brother Jim's wedding to Ginger," said Sylla's younger brother, Richard, in a halting voice. "And my brother Jim was the best man I ever knew."
The other Chevron executives killed in the crash were Owen F. Murphy, 60, the company's Los-Angeles-based regional vice president for general representation; Jocelyn G. Kempe, 56, public affairs manager in the Ventura and Santa Barbara areas; and Allen F. Swanson, 45, public affairs manager for Orange County and Arizona.