A butterfly birthday balloon floats above a white baby grand piano, a sure sign a musician is celebrating a birthday. But this is not just any pianist, or any birthday. Long-time music teacher and Forest Park resident, Lucille Sylvester, turned 98 on March 24.
Besides the balloon, birthday cards covered her coffee table. “More than a hundred,” nodded Sylvester.
Where did they come from? “People I don’t even know wrote them to me,” she said. “And it was not hard to guess who was behind all this.”
She was referring to her pastor, Elliot Wimbush, and Wednesday Journal Inc. employee, Karen Skinner. “They put something on the Internet, I think,” she said.
Because Sylvester does not have many relatives, Wimbush and Skinner mobilized people they knew in the community (and at the newspaper) to send cards to her. They sent emails and posted Facebook messages asking family and friends to send their greetings.
“Of course, I enjoyed receiving them,” Sylvester said in her no-nonsense manner.She does not remember when she moved to Forest Park but said Forest Park National Bank would know, because that’s when she opened her account. Wimbush guessed that her account number was “1.”
She has long been involved with his church, First Congregational Church of Maywood. “Lucille’s one our oldest members,” he said. But Sylvester doesn’t just attend services; she sits on the Diaconate Board and plays the piano at church events.
In fact, the church’s piano was donated by Sylvester. The last time she played it was in December, when she performed carols at the church’s Christmas celebration.
A large part of Sylvester’s almost century-long life has been devoted to music, and she intends to continue. Hence, the baby grand that dominates her living room.
She was born on March 24, 1917 and immediately given up for adoption. Dr. William Walingford and his wife Carey, who taught art at CPS high schools, adopted her. Dr. Walingford was one of the first doctors to practice at Westlake Hospital. She said her parents were professionals and not “mommy and daddy” types.
She grew up in Maywood. The first time she touched a keyboard, she was 4 and took piano lessons all the way through high school. After graduating from Proviso High School in 1934, she went to Northwestern University, where she earned her degree in Musicology.
She then became a piano teacher, working at a school for wayward boys in St. Charles. “I drove from Maywood to St. Charles every day,” said Sylvester, who remains as feisty and fiercely independent today as she was back then.
She taught voice lessons and is most proud of her student, Joseph Wolverton, who went on to Julliard. He is now a world-famous tenor, who won the Opera Company of Philadelphia’s Pavarotti Competition. Sylvester is most pleased, though, that he sang at Proviso’s graduation.
She went on to become the music supervisor of school District 87. Besides teaching, she played with her own band, the Sylvester Trio, which performed at nursing homes in the Chicago area. She wrote and arranged some of their songs. Composing was one of her hobbies: she has written six songs, from patriotic anthems like “I Love Old Glory,” which was published, to love ballads like “The Wedding Prayer” for a church wedding.
But if music always has been central to Sylvester’s life, it is definitely not the only thing she enjoys. She loves sports, especially baseball. (She recently started to watch tennis and is all about the Williams sisters). She has been a longtime supporter of the Cubs but has yet to see them win a World Series.
Her love of baseball began with Forest Park’s Parichy Bloomer Girls. She went to many games at Parichy Stadium with her girlfriends. After the games, they’d have drinks with the players at Vogel’s tavern across the street from the stadium. Sylvester played the piano there, in particular the favorite song of the team’s star pitcher, Wilda Mae Turner. She also connected with her first husband thanks to the Bloomer Girls.
Sylvester met George Greene at Parichy Stadium. After they were married, Greene served in World War II. They later had two sons. “My husband wanted the firstborn to be named George. So, that’s what we did.” However, she had fond memories of a woman named Mrs. Kell, who had been more “motherly” than her own. “So, I called him Kelly.” That name stuck the rest of his life. Sylvester has a framed photograph on her wall of Kelly in his Air Force uniform.
She is and always has been very determined, does not suffer fools gladly and has a withering look for those who ask foolish questions. She has a soft heart but a hard manner.
Of course, she has a soft spot for her two grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. She still has relatives living on the Nebraska farm where she spent pleasant summers as a girl.
Now her family includes her church, where she is respected and loved. On Sunday, March 22, the congregation threw a birthday party for her and gave her an album of photos taken that day. They also sent her many cards.
Despite this outpouring of affection, Sylvester remains as humble as ever. Though she has made many contributions to the local community, she is not impressed with herself.
When asked if she did something special for her birthday, she replied, “Yes. I went to the hospital and had blood drawn.”
She smiled, showing a bruise on the left hand that plays the chords.
Happy Birthday, Lucille.