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Face of the Week: "Mister Ken" Synan, custodian, Sparrows Point Middle School

Team BCPS is made up of thousands of accomplished and interesting students, employees, and community supporters. "Face of the Week" introduces you to some of the people who make BCPS such an amazing mosaic of talent, caring, and commitment.

Face of the Week: Savannah Davis of Woodholme Elementary School

If you are open to learning, lessons can come from anyone, at any place, at any time. Evan Detty, Jonathan Sikorski, Steven Bell, and Jazper Richmond, all Grade 7 students at Sparrows Point Middle School, know that now.

Ken Synan showed them.

It began about a month ago during first-period lunch. The school’s social sciences chair, Hayward Johnson, had invested in several board games for students to enjoy during their lunch times, and the four, all 13, discovered a chess set among Johnson’s acquisitions.

"I got the games so some of our students wouldn’t be bored," Hayward says. "They’ve been very popular." Soon, the boys found themselves immersed in chess games each lunch period, learning the intricacies of a game that has tested minds since the 7th Century.

Enter "Mister Ken," as the school’s lunch room custodian is known.

"I just noticed them playing one day, and I began to watch and offer a few moves," says Synan, 63, who knows a little something about the game. Not only does he play competitively with other local chess mavens at the Northpoint Flea Market each week, Synan says he keeps a 20-by-20-inch chess board on a table at his Rosedale apartment, "just for practice."

Synan soon became a fixture at the boys’ table, and the quartet learned to heed his seasoned advice. "I’ve been able to learn a lot from him," says Evan, sizing up a match one afternoon between Jazper and Jonathan. "He’ll give us tips and stuff. It’s a very strategic game, and he shows us how to think about it."

Adds Hayward, "Mister Ken has been wonderful with the group. He mostly just checks in on them to make sure they are doing all right."

Learning the game

The games are a pleasant diversion for Synan, who works the midday shift at Sparrows Point; he’s worked there about 10 years keeping the cafeteria and classrooms clean. A Kenwood High graduate, he has spent his 26-year career with BCPS working at six schools – Middle River Middle, Parkville High, Loch Raven Academy, Norwood and Chase elementaries, and Sparrows Point.

"I got into it because of my father," Synan says of his career. "My father (David Synan), he just loved his job. He made it sound so good to me when I was a youngster. So when it was time, he put in a good word for me, and I’ve been doing this ever since."

Off hours, Synan says he enjoys competing with his church’s softball team and bowling occasionally with his grandson, a 15-year-old who Synan says isn’t much interested in chess, despite his efforts to catch his only grandson’s attention. "He’s into playing those video games," Synan says with a shake of his white-haired head.

In addition to his chess advice, he also helps out with the high school’s "Fusion" Club, which he describes as an on-campus Christian students group.

But it’s the boys’ chess games he relates to, he says; he began playing chess himself at 14 and realizes how challenging a game can be. "You can almost get addicted to it," he says. "You’ve got to be a good abstract thinker. I’ve showed them how to open their games and some other things, but it’s a challenge. There are so many ways you can win, and there are so many ways you can lose."

Synan stresses that he usually has time just to help the players with their opening moves. "Each game of chess has its own open, middle, and end," he says, "and I help mostly with the openings. After that, I have to work."

He also realizes the role model he can be for his young students through chess. He doesn’t see himself as a chess master by any stretch, but he says the game contains life lessons just the same for anyone open to them.

"Hopefully," he says, "I’ll do what I can to help them do well in whatever they do in life."

Do you know of a special person who would be a good candidate for the BCPS “Face of the Week”? Let us know! Send their name, contact information, and what makes them special to  

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