By turning a quirky personality trait into a nationwide craze, neighborhood character Syboll is spreading a message of peace, not to mention selling thousands of pieces of merchandise and speaking at a local school.
Fishtown man Syboll — who has no last name since he legally changed it in 1998 — is nothing if not full of personality.
That’s perhaps best exemplified in his trademark gesture, “The Syboll,” which entails making the American Sign Language gesture for “love,” along with a kissy-face expression. It’s a bit of body language that speaks to Syboll’s nature as a promoter of peace.
That’s just what he’s doing through an anti-bullying movement he’s calling “SybollNation.” And while his namesake gesture suggests a bit of silliness, SybollNation is no joke — he’s filled 22,000 orders since January for SybollNation merchandise, and recently gave an anti-bullying talk to 175 elementary school students at Mother of Divine Grace School in Port Richmond.
It all started in December, when Syboll starred in a Christmas-themed series of videos made by his 16-year-old niece, Lauren Grabfelder, which she posted on YouTube. In the videos, Syboll made his inimitable gesture, and said people who saw the videos began tagging him on Facebook and using the hashtags “Syboll” or “Sybollnation” on Twitter and Instagram.
He essentially, then, became a viral internet trend. Syboll said teenagers from as far off as Knoxville, Tenn. had started tagging him in photos of themselves “Doing The Syboll.”
With the attention he’s gotten simply from being himself, Syboll said he’s now directing the attention into something positive.
“It’s been a movement to turn the ‘me generation’ into a generation of caring,” Syboll said of SybollNation.
Ending bullying is a crusade close to Syboll’s heart. Born William Munger, Syboll — whose name is an acronym for “stay young beautiful, oh live life” — was a victim of bullying while growing up in Fishtown, and said he now hopes to protect local kids from the harassment he endured.
“I’m truly humbled about this,” Syboll said of his newfound recognition. “Maybe at first it was people making fun of me, but we’re turning it into something positive.”
Now, Syboll said, people have posted photos of themselves “doing the Syboll” from 23 states and three foreign countries — Germany, Austria and Japan.
Syboll said teens going through breakups or other tough times have sent him messages seeking advice. Adults, he said, have also contacted him to share their memories of being bullied as children.
To help, Syboll said he gives out hotline information and advises people on other ways to seek help, as well as sending them his t-shirts, buttons and bracelets.
When Syboll spoke to MDG students last month, Principal Jane Lockhart said that the students already knew of him due to various social media.
“He told the kids, ‘I was bullied growing up and words do hurt, and you need to be good to each other,’” Lockhart said.
Syboll, a long-time club promoter, drug awareness activist, and businessman, has in recent years dealt with numerous personal tragedies.
His mother died after a long illness in 2009, prior to which Syboll was recovering from a devastating home robbery in 2007, in which he was beaten and stabbed. His 21-year-old nephew was murdered, and his best friend fell off a two-story home and became brain-damaged, and now lives with Syboll.
“It’s been a decade of troubles,” Syboll said.
Growing up, Syboll attended St. Laurentius School and North Catholic High School before going to Bucks County Community College.
“I always loved Fishtown. I didn’t have many friends. Being gay was not tolerated here,” Syboll said of his upbringing.
Being bullied, insulted and pelted with spitballs for being gay was part of Syboll’s life in high school, he said. That’s why SybollNation is dedicated to stopping bullying and offering a helping hand.
“I know I didn’t have an outlet,” Syboll recalled of his childhood. “When you are getting teased every day for being gay, you don’t want to go to your Mom with that, because you’re embarrassed.”
He plans to build on the momentum of SybollNation to organize an anti-violence event this spring.
“He’s definitely a positive role model for kids,” Lockhart said of Syboll.
For more information about “SybollNation,” visit syboll.com or follow Syboll on Facebook or Twitter.
Reporter Sam Newhouse can be reached at 215-354-3124 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.