The sound of music was Sylvia Sheldon’s gift. She wasn’t a star the way we know stars. Few knew, her children say, that she was an accomplished financial planner and president and major shareholder of Kaw Valley Bank in Topeka, Kansas.
She was better known for her contributions as a volunteer preschool music teacher at Coral Gables Early Childhood Center and The Giving Place at the First United Methodist Church of Coral Gables, a community she called home since 1970, three years after moving to Miami from Virginia.
Sheldon, who died Dec. 19 at 75, also used her musical talents as a pianist and singer to serve as president and scholarship chair for the Coral Gables Music Club. She served on the Dranoff Two Piano International Competition Board for nearly 20 years.
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But they don’t put you on People magazine or the Grammy stage for that. Her son Glenn and daughter Jennifer note their mother would not court such earthly honors.
“She was the kind of person who led because people wanted to follow her,” Glenn Sheldon said.
She wasn’t a star but she shone as an angel for so many. Perhaps none more so than Beatriz Hernandez, a once-troubled teen from South Miami High whom she took into her home and treated like a daughter.
“My life fell apart when I was 17,” said Hernandez, now 43 and mom to two sons, ages 9 and 19. “I was in the hospital for six months and tried to commit suicide. I was a good student and had known her superficially for a couple years from piano lessons. When I was discharged from the hospital and would have to go into the foster care system she wanted me to come back to the same high school and graduate at the top of my class and wanted me to have that continuity. School was the only source of anything positive in my life at the time.”
School and also the unassuming, giving Sheldon.
“I was very distrustful, so depressed, she worked me through that. She had a standard for how she conducted herself independently of how you treated her,” said Hernandez, a data analyst in the psychiatry department at Stanford University in California. “I didn’t even have that much of a friendship with her for her to open her home for me or for her to do that for me. You don’t think this is possible, you think it’s only in the movies.”
Years later, Sheldon took in Hernandez’s sister Claudia as her second foster daughter.
Sheldon’s daughter, Jennifer Doucet, laughs when she recalls a telling moment with her mother. Doucet’s future in-laws had just flown in from France to meet the family in time for the wedding. Sheldon introduced Hernandez as her daughter. “My mother-in-law had this shocked look on her face. ‘There’s a child I’ve never heard of?’ But Beatriz was her daughter in the most important way.”
Sheldon, born Sylvia Swogger on Nov. 7, 1940, in Topeka, Kansas, studied at the Sorbonne and earned her master’s in French from the University of Virginia. Music was her passion so she set up The Swogger Foundation to support young musicians in Miami, Kansas and New Hampshire.
Sheldon didn’t live the ’60s Woodstock lifestyle, her daughter said. You could even call her traditional. But “she had a sense of adventure . . . a feminist in a very positive way and such a good role model for me,” Doucet said. “She said I could do anything. I could follow my dreams and explore new things. She was like a trailblazer.”
In addition to her son and daughter and foster children, Sheldon is survived by son Benjamin, four grandchildren and her brother Glenn Swogger Jr. A memorial will be held at 11 a.m. Tuesday, at First United Methodist Church of Coral Gables, 536 Coral Way. Donations may be made in her name to the Alzheimer’s Association.
Sylvia taught me spiritual lessons that restored my faith in people and in myself. There were many times I expressed how overwhelmed I felt by all she had done for me and my family, despite warnings that it is very difficult to save a troubled adolescent with a history of trauma. There was no guarantee that I would turn out well or even appreciate her generosity. Her response was always the same: ‘God wants you to learn the meaning of grace. We don’t always earn the blessings we receive along the way.’
Beatriz Hernandez’s eulogy for her foster mom Sylvia Sheldon