Remembering Sydney Blair
On a rainy January Friday, over three hundred people streamed into Old Cabell Hall to remember a fiercely talented writer, a brilliant teacher, a trusted mentor and a loyal friend who left an indelible mark on so many careers and lives during her time on Grounds.
Beloved Creative Writing Associate Professor Sydney Blair’s sudden passing just before Christmas last year left the kind of void that is hard to even think about filling. Blair was an English Department fixture for more than 30 years, graduating from the Creative Writing Program with a Master of Fine Arts degree and serving as its director from 1991 to 1995 and again, from 2006 to 2009. Blair is widely credited for helping to guide the program toward its stellar national reputation and for connecting with and guiding students with a keen eye and an open heart.
Lisa Russ Spaar, a poet and English professor who first forged her friendship with Blair in 1981, said that Blair’s particular brand of personal and professional magic was born out of what is perhaps the most important attribute a writer, and a person, can possess. “She just paid attention to everything,” Spaar said, “which made her a wonderful writer, and a wonderful teacher, and a wonderful friend.”
Sydney Blair’s passion for connecting with people was a key to Blair’s success and popularity with her students. Spaar smiled when reminded of a colleague’s recently recalling Sydney’s office as a bustling center of activity, much like a favorite café. “You would pass by and there was this old green chair that has been part of the Creative Writing program since the 60’s and 70’s. Sydney quietly inherited that chair, and you would pass by and the door would always be cracked and you would see this student there, notebook in hand, and you could see from that side of things just how much was happening in there.”
These connections extended into every classroom where she taught. “At the time that she died,” Spaar said, “she was teaching three classes. Her children helped me locate the notes on her desk that she had taken for each class. She had notes on every student, about every assignment, every paper they were turning in. They were very old school, hand-written notes. She was just exemplary. There is no one like her.”
Sydney Blair’s legacy at UVA will be carried on by faculty and students alike. She helped found an undergraduate prose program, which will graduate its second class this spring. “Sydney wanted to do that for a long time, and you just can’t start a program like that if you don’t have a critical mass of faculty willing to teach in it. It would not exist without her long nurturing support of the undergraduate prose program.”
Selby Perkins (College ‘18), a student in Blair’s prose program, said that her impact will be felt in the lives and work of her students, as well as in the program as it moves forward. “She taught us how to be brave. She taught us how to take what was going on in our lives and use it in our writing, and to never be afraid to try new things, even if they might not work. She taught us outrageous creativity – to never be afraid to try new things even if they might not work, and how to create for the art of creation.”
Those wishing to help continue her legacy can support a fund created to support women writers of fiction in her name. Donations may be sent to The UVA Fund—Sydney Blair Memorial, P.O. Box 400314, Charlottesville, VA 22904-4314.