Thank You, Dick

Russian professor Richard Sylvester is retiring next month after 17 years at Colgate. In class and as director of study groups in Russia, he has inspired his students and instilled in them a love of the language, culture and people of that nation.

My love affair with Russia

I first encountered Dick Sylvester when I decided to take Russian in 1986. Dick became my academic adviser, adviser on my honors thesis and, perhaps most important, he took me on the study group to Moscow in the summer of 1989. That was the beginning of my love affair with Russia.

Through his poetry seminars and Russian grammar lessons (oh, how we hated those, but what would life be without nightly wrestling with the Genitive Case and Perfective/Imperfective Tenses of those troublesome verbs), the culture courses atop Hotel Sevastopol, the walking tours of Bulgakov's and Gogol's Moscow, the road trip to Tolstoy's and Lermontov's estates, the theaters, the museums -- through it all Dick taught us to feel Russia: unquestioningly, profoundly and, above all, with humor!

Since graduation I have worked in Russian area studies and recently returned from a one-year stint in Moscow. Last year Dick brought yet another group of Slavophiles to Moscow for the fall semester. I felt privileged to join them on some of their outings.

The lessons I have learned through Dick remain significant in my dealings with Russia. But those lessons are applicable not only with respect to Russia, but to life: em-brace what you love with passion, integrity and unwavering dedication. Dick is the embodiment of all these things and more: a committed professor who was always available to guide and assist us without taking credit for doing so. This support remained with us long after graduation when he would warmly welcome our phone calls and boast about our accomplishments. And of course the best part of visits to Colgate have always been the late night vodka sessions in Dick's living room, or chatting on his back porch.

I am sure retirement will give Dick more time for researching his music project, his poetry and his garden, but I know the Colgate Russian department and all his students of the past 17 years will feel his absence more than he will ever know.

New York City

Study group shepherd

I am thrilled and honored for the opportunity to take part in this tribute to Dr. Richard Sylvester for one simple reason: Dick Sylvester changed my life. I say that with no hyperbole but because, in truth, he did. Dick Sylvester is the reason that I became a Russian major. Dick Sylvester is the reason I became a Russophile. He infected me, as he did all his students, I suspect, with a love of Russia and her unique and enduring people, and a love of the Russian language, its spellbinding and rich literature.

In 1984 Colgate offered three "exotic" languages: Chinese, Japanese and Russian. Russian was the only one that fit my freshman schedule and the rest is history.

But the truth is, I was inspired to study and major in Russian by Dick Sylvester. Dick, as he insisted we call him upon arriving in Moscow in the summer of 1987, was my Russian 102 professor and, from that moment on, my mentor in all things Russian.

The summer of 1987 was one of the most important learning experiences for me at Colgate, before and since. Dick shepherded our study group of 17 through Moscow, Tbilisi, Yerevan and St. Petersburg with great care. He gave us space -- looking the other way when my roommate Anne and I threw caution to the wind for an unauthorized excurisia out of Moscow and beyond our visa limitations -- but he showed that he cared, calling us aside to discuss our new Russian "boyfriends" and encouraging us to eat something besides bread and ice cream (we never got over the greasy sosiski (sausages) at the Hotel Sevastopol.

Now, seven years after graduation, although I use my Russian only sporadically (although it was my language ability that got me my current job), I still feel a strong connection to Russia. Easily half of the books on my shelves are Russian-related. I go to Russian-language films whenever they come to town. I have a passion for Russia. I have Dick to thank for inspiring that emotion. And it's in this way that Dick Sylvester changed my life.

Washington, DC

On becoming a Russophile

Maybe once in a lifetime you meet somebody who makes a big difference in your life. Dick Sylvester has been such a person for me.

While at Colgate I took Russian as a fifth class on a pass/fail basis. While this reduced the risk of taking five classes it also made Russian easy to ignore when things got busy. As a result, by the time I enrolled in Dick Sylvester's fourth-year Russian class, I was the "King of Bad Grammar."

Nonetheless, while my grades were not the best, my interest in Russia bloomed in Dick's class. While reading The Twelve Chairs in class and attending Russian parties at his house I found myself becoming a Russophile. I took over the Russian club, brought a Russian comic to perform on campus and listened to Radio Moscow World Service every night. I became enamored with the earthy Russia of Tolstoy, the crazy intellectual fervor of the Revolution and the insanity of life under Communism.

After graduating I spent the summer traveling in the Soviet Union. It was a tremendous adventure but ended too soon and before long I was working as a tax accountant for Arthur Andersen. Though busy with business school at night, and a job that called for 60+ hours per week, I found myself listening to Radio Moscow, yearning for things Russian and wishing I had done better in Dick's classes.

When I finished my MBA I began to plot my return to Russia. Finding few opportunities to work there, a friend and I started a company to record, produce and distribute Soviet jazz albums in the U.S. Soon I found myself a Russian impresario. Since then I have produced tours of the Red Army Chorus, Kirov Ballet, Van Cliburn and the Moscow Philharmonic and the Leningrad Dixieland Jazz Band. Throughout all this Dick has been my consultant, friend and colleague, writing liner notes for one of our albums, helping me find new employees and helping me solve the endless problems working with Russians involves.

I visit Russia nearly every year, have a house full of Russian stamps, icons, war bonds and samovars, and I continue to work with Russian performing artists. My grammar has not improved but my life is interesting and full, something I will be forever in debt to Dick for.

Salt Lake City

An excellent teacher

Writing in honor of Dick Sylvester's retirement gives me a chance to thank him for the important influence that he has had on my life. I can still vividly remember my first class at Colgate, Russian 201. Dick was the kind of professor I had imagined and hoped college professors would be like: interesting, enthusiastic, knowledgeable and an excellent teacher.

While I was never a good Russian student, Dick motivated me to do my best and he was always encouraging. As a direct result, and through a contact that Dick introduced me to, I have spent the six years since graduation working with Russian. In the ten years since that freshman Russian class, Dick has become an excellent friend whom I admire and greatly respect.

Dick told me a story of running into a student on the streets of Moscow whom he had taught 30 years ago. I was struck by the amount of time that Dick has been teaching and the number of students he has influenced. Dick's retirement is well-deserved, and I am confident that his effect on Colgate, in the Russian world and beyond will continue to expand.

Salt Lake City

Thriving off the culture

I remember arriving at the Moscow airport, Sheremyetovo 2, on September 2, 1994 with a group of Colgate students who didn't really know what to expect in Russia, but who were willing to spend a semester there. Even I, the assistant director of the study group, was a little apprehensive, as it had been five years since I had been in Russia and a lot had changed in that time.

Dick had left for Moscow a few weeks earlier to prepare for our arrival. My first reaction was that Moscow hadn't changed all that much -- the airport had that gloomy, gray atmosphere, filled with the scent of cheap Russian cigarettes that is somehow simultaneously disturbing and charming. As I emerged from the customs line, jet-lagged and nervous, there was Dick, waiting for us, waving at me exuberantly. This is the characteristic that I feel typifies Dick -- his tendency to be energized by Russia. Living in Russia, while exhilarating, can also be exhausting. But Dick's energy almost never waned throughout the semester. He would teach, take care of administrative duties, lead excursions, suggest activities for the students and often partake of them himself, make suggestions to help me with my own research, and then socialize with the students on weekends, as well as with his own friends in Moscow, the whole time emitting an almost tangible energy.

It is this energy, enthusiasm and love for Russian culture that Dick has managed to convey to me and countless other students of Russian.


My friend and mentor

I came to Colgate looking for the small school experience and the excellent teaching, but I did not expect that my career here would be so affected by one individual as it has been by Professor Sylvester. He has taken my Russian experience, which began as a passive interest in expanding my knowledge of foreign languages, and made the Russian culture, history and language a passion for me.

In our many conversations I have learned of his vast education -- West Point, then Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and Harvard. His is a kind of love for and dedication to knowledge and experience that few of us have, or ever will enjoy. That love is what drove him to Russia, to his studies, and to his teaching of Russian. It is that same love that takes him away again.

Recognizing that I would not ultimately place Russian before my physics major, and knowing that I would never be his star student, he still took it upon himself to keep me in the Russian program, to take me on the study group, to make changes in his schedule to accommodate mine. Nor am I the only individual so indebted. On a walk with Professor Sylvester one rainy afternoon in Moscow, we were stopped by a passerby. In Russian he spoke, "It is you," and went on to relate how Professor Sylvester had taught his first Russian class more than 20 years before at the University of Texas. This man had since raised a family, lived in three or four European countries as well as Africa, and had finally settled in Moscow. Yet he remembered visiting Professor Sylvester's home with his freshman class in Austin.

It will be with deep regret that I bid Professor Sylvester, my friend and mentor, good-bye in December. Surely there will be visits, and he has promised to return for graduation, but the second floor of Lawrence Hall will not be the same for me, nor anyone else in the department, without him there. His departure is our great loss.

Bolshoy Spasiba.