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.
To plant a memorial tree in honor of Richard Sylvester, please visit our Heartfelt Sympathies Store.
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 (email@example.com). Contributions in Dick’s memory to your local food bank would be much appreciated.