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25 Broad Street
Hamilton, NY 13346
Phone: 315-824-2417
Fax: 315-825-3526
Richard Sylvester

Richard Sylvester

November 24, 2020
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HAMILTON, New York – Richard “Dick” Sylvester, age 87, passed away on the night of November 24, 2020, after a brief stay at Crouse Hospital in Syracuse. Dick taught Russian language and literature at Colgate University from 1978 to 1998.
Dick was born in Minneapolis, MN to George Sylvester and Gertrude “Trudy” Sylvester. His father was in the army in WWI and commanded the Minnesota National Guard Unit during WWII, and much of Dick’s schooling was on army posts from California to Kentucky during the war and into the late 1940s. After high school he spent a year with his family (his parents and his older brother John and younger sister Georgianne) in occupied Japan, where he first discovered an interest in foreign languages.
Before entering West Point in 1952, Dick spent a semester at the University of Minnesota. Intending to take a course in Norwegian, he walked into a beginning Russian class by mistake, and fell in love with the sounds of the language. He continued Russian at West Point and graduated first in his class in foreign languages in 1956. That year he won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University, where he studied English Language and Literature at Worcester College. In 1963, after army service, he began Ph.D. studies at Harvard in Slavic Languages & Literatures (Russian and Polish), receiving his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1976. He taught at Harvard as a Teaching Assistant and at UT Austin as Assistant Professor.
After coming to Colgate, Dick nurtured his excellent undergraduates, drawn to challenging subject matter, and able to combine serious academic study with far-flung travel off campus. He also found brilliant colleagues in language studies and other disciplines with whom he made lifelong friendships. Dick often said that it was at Colgate that his academic life reached its most rewarding fulfillment.
Dick led six Colgate study groups to Russia, the first in the summer of 1979. He spent 1980-81 at the Pushkin Institute in Moscow serving as Director of the American Council of Teachers of Russian program for American undergraduate and graduate students. In Moscow Dick achieved fluency in Russian and learned Moscow and Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) well. He met poets, musicians, artists, actors and people in theatre and film, and became friends with the families of Nobel laureates Joseph Brodsky, Boris Pasternak, and Peter Kapitsa.
Back on campus at Colgate, Dick supported the Reagan-Gorbachev exchange program that sent Colgate students to Russia and other former Soviet states for a year and brought outstanding students from there to Colgate. Many of his students won fellowships, some went to graduate school in Russian studies, and several made great careers working in Russia or other parts of the former Soviet Union
From boyhood Dick was a fan of good songs sung by good singers, a passion that started with Sarah Vaughan and Frank Sinatra and grew to include Russian singers. On his many trips to Russia he bought LP records of Russian songs. After retiring from Colgate in 1998, he wrote two well-received books on the songs of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, published by Indiana University Press, in 2002 and 2014, respectively. Through these books, Dick's study of English poetry at Oxford and Russian poetry at Harvard, and his years teaching students how to read Russian poetry, were in full evidence and this post-retirement labor of love brought his academic career to a satisfying conclusion.
While in Moscow in 1980, Dick met a Russian man, Vasily, a teacher and tenor, who had graduated as a vocalist from the Kazan Conservatory. Sharing a great passion for vocal music, Vasya and Dick remained partners until Vasya's death in 2009. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, they bought an apartment together in Moscow, then visited back and forth between there and summers at Dick's home in Hamilton, where Vasya grew a garden of typically Russian flowers. During Vasya's visits to Hamilton they always attended every opera at Glimmerglass in Cooperstown, with a group of dear friends from Colgate, New York, and California. Dick remained a passionate gardener and Glimmerglass-goer to his last years. He is survived by his beloved sister, Georgie Abbiatti, of Bradenton, FL, his nephew Richard Abbiatti, niece Mary Katherine (Jerry) Sklon, and his niece-in-law Gloria Abbiatti, all of Vermont, as well as by dozens of loving friends, colleagues, and former students.
Richard Sylvester’s ashes will be interred at the Colgate cemetery, and a memorial service (likely remote) is being planned for spring, 2021. For information, please contact Nancy Ries in Hamilton ( Contributions in Dick’s memory to your local food bank would be much appreciated.
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Posted at 09:25pm
With deepest sympathy, and fond memories of a USMA classmate and fellow Army officer at Fort Lewis in1960s.
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Francesca Zambello

Posted at 08:22pm
To those who knew Richard/AKA Dick. He came every summer to Glimmerglass where I serve as General Director. He brought so much love and joy with him it was overwhelming. I know we gave him pleasure, but to see his appreciation meant so much to all of us on the staff. I hope he is listening to a lot of great opera!

Nancy Ries Posted at 12:59pm

Dear Francesca, thank you for posting this. Aside from his love for his many friends, Glimmerglass was the very center of his life. He planned his "Opera weeks" and looked forward to them in the first half of the year, and talked about them in the second half. He always reminisced about his favorite performances for years after.

O. Nigel Bolland

Posted at 03:14pm
I have nothing but lovely memories of my colleague, Dick. We had really engaging conversations about music from time to time and I was amazed by his knowledge. I first heard about Gubaidulina when we had lunch at the faculty club, and she’s been on my radar ever since. Dick was extraordinarily modest and thoughtful, gentle and kind. He will be missed by all his friends and colleagues.
Nigel Bolland

Nancy Ries Posted at 01:01pm

Gubaidulina! Thanks for this, dear Nigel!

The Chekin Family

Posted at 11:06am
In memory of our dear friend Dick Sylvester, his extraordinary life and love of beauty.
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Nancy Ries Posted at 01:00pm

Thank you, dear Chekins!

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