Ruth Sylvester, who died February 26, 2020, was a lifelong country dancer, a beloved member of the Vermont / New Hampshire Upper Valley community, and a cherished friend for many decades.
Ruth’s love of music and dance was, if not inevitable, certainly the joyful consequence of being the child of dancers Betsy Ross Bankart and Mike Sylvester. After graduation from Smith College, Betsy spent a year on a working scholarship in the southern Appalachians. She traveled with an itinerant recreation worker, visiting schools for brief residencies. Betsy taught folk dancing, though in some locales only play party games—no dancing!—were permitted. After meeting her future spouse, Mike Sylvester, at Pinewoods, Betsy moved to Manhattan, where she worked in administration and taught elementary school science at the Brearly School. In the late 1940s, she served with Mary Judson, May Gadd, and others on the editorial board of The Country Dancer, the predecessor to the CDSS News.
Thanks to that Pinewoods friendship, Betsy’s daughter, Ruth Sylvester, owed her very existence to country dancing. Ruth was born in 1952, graduated from Bryn Mawr College with a major in Greek and Latin, and worked on a vegetable farm in northern New Hampshire for several years. After moving to the Upper Valley region of New Hampshire and Vermont, she tried numerous jobs before settling in as a freelance writer and editor for local publications.
As the child of dancers, folk dance and music became a feature of Ruth’s life. In her twenties, she found herself at a dance that lacked a caller and volunteered to give calling a try. Starting in the early 1980s, she became a regular caller at local contra dances. Her first band, The Last Call, was joined on several occasions by pianist Bob McQuillen, who composed “Miss Sylvester’s Reel” for her. Fiddler Tracey Sherry, a close friend for nearly 40 years, recalled, “Ruth loved teaching people to dance. She poured herself into becoming a continually better caller, and she practiced a lot.”
From 1987 through 2015, she appeared at a monthly dance as Dr. Ruth and the Pleasure Seekers, and then with the band Cuckoo’s Nest. Boston caller Laura Johannes remembered a Jamaica Plain dance when Ruth called The Merry-Go-Round: “Her entire face lit up with a mischievous smile. That was one of her favorite dances ever.” Ruth remained an avid dancer—even during bouts with cancer—enjoying contras, squares, and English country dance, brightening halls with a friendly attitude and one of her many sequined skirts.
Ruth met her future spouse, Elfie Forbes, at a reading group in 2001. At their joyful wedding in 2009, they processed to the tune “Trip to the Jubilee.” Lisa Greenleaf led everyone in a large spiral to the tune “Fandango” at the ensuing dance party.
Ruth and Elfie hosted an annual midwinter potluck supper where the dishes had to include at least one of the “Three Essentials”: butter, garlic, and chocolate. They hosted a similar event every June to celebrate strawberry season. Elfie commented, “Ruth delighted in bringing people together to have fun. Her gift for being fully involved in the present moment made her wonderful company, although it also occasionally made her late for appointments.”
In her fifties, Ruth started playing cello again. Playing music became a joyful passion for the rest of her life; she joined a string quartet, an informal dance band, a Bach study group, and a chamber orchestra. She served on the board of the Upper Valley Music Center, devoting many hours as a volunteer. She will be deeply missed by all who knew her.
Legacy Gift to CDSS
This year, CDSS was one of several beneficiaries of both Ruth’s and Betsy’s estates. In a year with so many disappointments and challenges, we found reason to be deeply grateful for these bequests whose abundance means we will likely not have to dip into our reserves in 2020 after all. When I told Elfie of this extraordinary impact and our gratitude, she replied that that was a fitting fulfillment of Ruth’s wish that her gift sustain dance, music, and song for many years beyond her own passing.
What will your legacy be? For most people, their final gift is their only opportunity to make a really big financial gift to an organization they trust and believe in. Thanks to all of you who have already included CDSS in your estate plans. If you are among them, we would love to know.