James Nowak ’73, a Fulbright Scholar and championship goalie for Cornell’s 1971 lacrosse team, was killed in a car crash in Kenya Friday afternoon. A Peace Corps volunteer and a high school teacher for over 30 years, Nowak spent the last seven years building classrooms and schools in Africa.
Nowak was best known for founding Building Futures, an organization whose mission is to “aid in the education of impoverished Kenyans,” according to its website. In addition to building schools and providing classrooms with solar-generated electricity, the organization also tries to promote the health and well-being of the students. It provides scholarship opportunities and teaches students sportsmanship through activities like baseball, according to the organization's website.
Nowak became interested in charity work after watching a documentary on the pain and poverty caused by HIV and AIDS worldwide, according to the Fairport Post. After seeing the film, Nowak was so moved by its message that he retired from his teaching position and joined the Peace Corps, an organization that would propel him into the field of charity work.
Soon after his first trips to Africa in the Peace Corps, Nowak organized his own construction expedition to Maseno, Kenya, in 2005, backed by funding from schools in Lansing, N.Y. It was in this Kenyan town that Nowak met Fairport native Adam Jablonski, and the two began making plans to found Building Futures, according to the organization’s website.
Although Nowak is renowned for his work in Kenya, he is also remembered for his educational efforts in Fairport, N.Y., where he taught at Fairport Senior High School for more than 30 years.
“In the classroom and in his later work in Africa, [Nowak] spent his life giving, inspiring, leading and, most importantly, loving, all of those he came in contact with,” Chris Salinas, principal of Fairport High School, said in a press statement.
Some of Nowak’s previous students left commemorative comments on RateMyTeachers.com in response to his death.
One student who contributed to Nowak’s ratings wrote that Nowak was one of the few teachers “who have had a deep and lasting impact on my life.”
During an interview with the University in 2007, Nowak described his years at Cornell as an enlightening experience.
“I came to Cornell and I met the world, and the Vietnam War was going on, and all of a sudden my eyes were wide open to the whole planet,” Nowak said.
The schools and classrooms Building Futures constructed survive Nowak as his legacy.