Remembering Sylvia

posted by James Wagner, A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program alumnus

Earlier this month A.C.T. lost a friend, supporter, and longtime library volunteer, Sylvia Coe Tolk. Master of Fine Arts Program alumnus James Wagner reflects on her life, their friendship, and her lasting importance to the A.C.T. community.

Usually death is a sad occasion; appropriately so. But when I heard that Sylvia Tolk had passed, surprisingly, I felt a tinge of grief overwhelmed mostly with relief and fulfillment. And not just mild fulfillment, but fulfillment of the kind that comes after a world-class seven-course meal. Not because I’m mean-spirited or cold-hearted, mind you, though I can be both at times, but because I sensed that Sylvia had lived a full long life wherein she did finally arrive at a satisfying dessert. It seemed time for her to get up, thank her guests, and leave the table; to wash up, put on her favorite PJs, and crawl into a pillow-laden infinite rest. Isn’t that what we all want? We all know we can’t live forever, but to live well for as long as we are given—something feels basically good about that.

Let me speak a little to my experience of her. When I was accepted into A.C.T.’s Master of Fine Arts Program as an incoming member of the class of 2008, I struggled with the decision to actually attend. A major part of that struggle was financial; at one point I even called [Conservatory Director] Melissa Smith and told her that I was not comfortable with the debt I would incur as a student and would not be coming. To my astonishment, without making a specific request, my financial need was heard, respected, and responded to. Three donors came forward to help build a financial aid package for me. Sylvia was one of those donors.

I was put in touch with each of them and would speak with them periodically. Because Sylvia was regularly working as a volunteer librarian at A.C.T., we would talk when I checked out books. She was always very sweet and would bring forth fresh chocolates from the depths of her librarian’s desk to offer a donation of cocoa to my well-being; always an effective gesture.

At one point I brought up the possibility of having a cup of tea or lunch to catch up and let her get to know me. I was Sylvia’s first and only scholarship student. Demure, she shyly declined my invitation, feeling (I think) funny about some posture of friendliness I might have towards her based on the fact that she was giving me money. I think she wanted to know there was a genuine connection . . . which, thankfully, did come in time.

It began simply. I would write letters at the end of each semester to my donors. She would respond in kind. In meticulously loopy and clear black-inked penmanship, on yellow legal-pad paper, she answered what I had written with a very conversational and familiar style. She wrote about seeing our performances, about how her experience with meditation was similar to mine, and little tidbits about her personal life. These letters and library talks went on for most of my three years as a student.

As graduation approached, she had bouts of illness. When she came to see me in A Christmas Carol on A.C.T.’s mainstage, she was in a wheelchair and had a full-time caregiver. Much of our talk was good-humored complaints about medical situations. I had to start sending my letters to a new address where she was receiving the attention she needed.

My final contact with her was at the ceremony christening the A.C.T. library collection, the “Sylvia Coe Tolk Collection,” in honor of a gift she made to establish an endowment for the library. Family, friends, and members of the A.C.T. community were present at the small gathering, where she said a few modest words of thanks, hope, and intention. It was nice to meet members of her family who clearly were carrying forward her warmth, conviction, and humility in service.

I am honored to be asked to write a short commemorative for Sylvia, inadequate to the task in my limited experience of her and knowing full well that she deserves the very best, but we each do our best with what we are given. So, here, now, as I was writing this, I took a moment to get quiet and feel her still-lingering presence, and although there is a good-bye we all are saying to Sylvia Coe Tolk the woman and the bodily life, her spirit and essence are not far. So, I say good-bye to the woman and Godspeed to her spirit. May she linger in the hearts she touched for a long time to come.

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