Dr. Bela Sivak (1935 - 2005)

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In Memory of Dr. Bela Sivak
1935 - 2005

Bela was born on May 26, 1935, in Panyok, (NE. Hungary) close to the southern border of the present Slovakian Republic. His father was a poor farmer on 10 acres of rolling agricultural land. In comparison, prince Eszterhazy, a Hungarian aristocrat owned 400.000 acres (this name might be familiar, after the name of a small settlement in Southern Saskatchewan). My late Father-in-Law, an Alberta farmer, used to say that a family needs at least ? section of land to lead a decent life.

By the end of WW II, in Bela’s family there were eight children. In the Spring of 1945, the Russian soldiers rounded up several dozen farmers in Bela’s village and took them as prisoners to the ‘glorious’ and victorious Soviet Union. Unfortunately, his father was among them. His mother was left alone to tend the farm and the children. After the end of the war, the large agricultural lands like Eszterhazy’s became nationalized and were distributed among the Hungarian peasantry, but Bela’s family did not receive any of these lands. Perhaps his mother was too proud to apply for such land. His father returned from Siberia, mostly on foot, at the end of 1947.

In the late ’40-s the Hungarian communist party, with the help of the Russian forces, established complete totalitarian control over the country. They started to force the independent Hungarian farmers to join the collective farms. Bela’s father submitted his farm to be collectivized if the authorities guaranteed that his son Bela would receive higher education and become a forester. Otherwise, his family was unable to send him to high school or university.

This way he came to Sopron in 1954 and became our classmate. Bela was a very serious and
conscientious student. While we, his classmates, often enjoyed student life, played sports or went dancing, He just studied his books.

In November 1956, when the Soviets decided to crush the Hungarian revolution and we had failed to receive artillery support from the Hungarian army against the advancing Russian tanks, almost all of us had fled to Austria. Bela, utilizing the mid-november long nights and fog, sneaked back to the Russian occupied Sopron to ask his fiancée Piroska to join him in freedom. In January 1957 we came to Canada. In the spring of 1957, Bela and Piroska were married.

Bela graduated with a BSF in 1959. Then he started his MSc. in Plant Pathology. After this he completed his PhD. in Plant Biochemistry. An accident in the lab blinded Bela in one eye. Meantime his marriage ended. These were hard times in Bela’s life.

But then, in the labyrinths of scientific labs, he met Connie and they became a couple. Married in 1980 and soon they became proud parents of two boys, Christopher and Timothy.

Bela’s first fulltime employment started when he replaced me in BCIT as instructor of plant identification and soils, while I took sabbatical leave to study soils in 1975. Upon my return to BCIT we shared the teaching load of plant id., soils and ecology for many years. His deeper involvement with soil science started, when Dr. Les Lavkulich invited him to take part in one of Les’s famous Western Canadian graduate student soil tours in 1977.

When someone asked us what we liked in teaching, we usually replied, July and August. In these months, we loaded up with shovels, plant collecting gear and cameras and attacked the back-country.
While trying to figure out the nature of soils of the grassland and forest transition in the Bela started working on his proposed Illustrated Manual of Range-grasses of BC. Unfortunately, this manual has never been finished. We have never found a perfect picture for a Festuca scabrella Tor. or a Calamagrostis rubescens Buckl. just to name a few examples. He was a perfectionist.

While everybody had the utmost trust in Bela’s work, he lacked confidence in himself. A kind and humble man, he rather had respect for the endeavours of others.

One of his great achievements was a four year appointment in Alberta, by the Alberta Forest Service
in the late ’80-s to introduce the methods of Biogeoclimatic Classification in our neighbouring province. By that time the Biogeoclimatic System was in full swing in B.C. This led to the publication in 1990 of a Field Guide to the Forest Ecosystems of Southwestern Alberta, by Bela and the Staff  of the Forest Research Branch of the Alberta Forest Service.

After retirement from BCIT in 1997, he enjoyed giving Dendrology and Soil courses in the ABCFP’s pupil program. He attended most of the PRSSS workshops and field trips. 

This last spring he donated his literature collection of his Alberta research to the Pacific Regional Soil Science Society’s report storage at UBC. The rest of his literature collection was donated to the Nicola Valley Institute of Technology.

On the morning of  June 20th, Bela’s battle with an aggressive colon cancer ended.

Just weeks prior to his passing, Bela was planning a field trip to the Lower Mainland to sample at last a ‘picture perfect’ Luvisol, perhaps “the one”, which would show the characteristics of the Grey Brown great group i.e. MAST >8° C. Now there are no restrictions for Bela, in budget and distance; may he sample the most picture and text-book perfect plant associations and soils! 

by Andy Jakoy

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