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Eulogy by Deborah Phillips
Sylvia had a knack for making herself indispensable. This is because she gave so often without regard for herself. But that generosity of spirit also frequently broke her heart, because she so often poured her love into leaky vessels a weakness she often acknowledged. Nevertheless, she was optimistic about people and the future. This was because of her abiding faith in God, which ran deep.
Sylvia was the best prayer warrior I have ever known, and could make a simple mealtime blessing worthy of a college benediction. Her gift of oratory was a product of her many years as a teacher, but also, I think, of her Southern heritage.
In fact, she often teased me that although I was born in Kentucky, raised in Maryland, and had lived in Virginia for 20 years, I was not a "true" southerner because I had never heard many of the unique colloquialisms she constantly barraged me with. To my ear, many of them made no sense whatsoever, but never failed to spark laughter. I often teased her that I was going to start writing them down for a book called "The Yankee's Guide to Understanding Southern Speak." I now wish I had, for I think some of them may have been uniquely Sylvia's.
She took great pride in her ability to exert or, as I teased her "ooze", southern charm. Whenever we at VIP had a particularly difficult person to deal with, I would ask Sylvia to handle it, because I knew they would have to be pretty tough to withstand what I called her "Southern Offensive." And if the person was from the deep south, it was understood that was Sylvia's contact to be made. As she often said to me, "Deborah, you just don't speak the language."
I often teased Sylvia that her southern accent grew stronger whenever she was talking about patriotic themes. She was a staunch defender of human and civil rights. I think she felt personal pain when considering that anyone might be hurt because of their color or origin. When an episode about slave trafficking aired on her favorite TV show "Touched by an Angel" Sylvia taped it and hounded her friends to watch it. I watched it with her and although she had seen it several times before, Sylvia cried viewing it again. She was so thrilled that her association with The Voting Integrity Project put her on the same board as civil rights activist and icon James Meredith, also from Mississippi.
Sylvia had a unique talent for loving the person within not a common trait in the rarified world of politics that she also loved. This often put her in the middle, mediating between friends of disparate political beliefs, or those cherished but who were at odds with one another. Sometimes, she was asked to take sides something Sylvia was loathe to do. She wanted to love and be loved by everyone. So she was able to get along well with liberals, conservatives, Christians, non- Christians, and every other type of person. But she had a hard time with people who were judgmental of others or deliberately mean.
Sylvia often talked about wanting her life to matter. She wanted in her lifetime to contribute to something greater than herself. That is what led her to contribute so much of her time, energy and talents to The Voting Integrity Project. She was one of the founding governors. In its gestational months, she served as Executive Director. For some time she served as its recording secretary and then most recently as Treasurer. Because of our internal policies against overt political activities by Governors, Sylvia took leaves of absences from the Board of Governors to participate in political campaigns. But she always came back.
She often talked of her teaching years and her students with great fondness. She attributed her love of learning to her parents, and joked that her family could open up its own school using just her family members as the teaching staff! It was Sylvia's love of young people and education, that moved me to give her the task of devising a method of outreach to young voters. Reports were showing that if voters were not engaged at an early age, they were unlikely to regularly participate throughout life. Yet, capturing their imaginations can be a tricky task. This led Sylvia to develop the concept for the Young Voter Outreach program and principles for educating our young that would result in engaged voters-for-life. In time it grew to incorporate having young people volunteer for the difficult-to-fill roles of poll workers and receive community service credits toward graduation. That is why I am pleased that VIP will be naming this program after her and devoting more resources to it in the future. I was so happy we were able to tell this to Sylvia before she left us. I think she was very pleased to have her legacy acknowledged.
Sylvia and I had a running joke about naps. As busy individuals, we shared an attitude that there was something extremely luxurious about being able to take a nap. We often reminded each other that God hadn't put us here to nap, but that when he called us home we could nap all we wanted!
One of my fondest memories of Sylvia was an afternoon we spent driving leisurely back from Uniontown Pennsylvania following a seminar we had taught there on Election Integrity. It had taken place in a small town hall called "The Hall of Freedom" filled with historical mementoes. The audience had been extremely receptive, and on the return through the mountains we listened to gospel music and she seemed so relaxed and peaceful. I reminded her of this trip just hours before she passed away.
Sylvia made an enormous difference to her family, her friends, her party, and her country. I think she knew this, finally, and is now overdue for a nice long nap.
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