July 1, 1918 – June 12, 2016
William A. Sylvester, a member of the pantheon of poets and writers in the University at Buffalo English Department from the 1960s to the 1980s, died June 12 in Bloomington, Ind., where he had lived since 2010. He was 97.
“In those days,” he observed in a letter to his colleague Irving Feldman, “(Robert) Creeley was published by Charles Scribner’s Sons, Charles Olson by Reynal & Hitchcock, John Logan by Grove Press. Mac Hammond and Al Cook were published by university presses, and best-seller lists ranked John Barth and Leslie Fiedler.
“It was as if we all shared national and international recognition, as if we were all enhanced by a company of professor poets who reached a mainstream audience, as well as an academic one,” he wrote.
Mr. Sylvester published seven books of poetry and six chapbooks, including the long poem, “War & Lechery,” in 1995 and a collection of essays, “Fever Spreading Into Light,” in 1992. His poems, fiction, essays and translations appeared in numerous literary and academic journals and anthologies.
Born in Washington, D.C., Mr. Sylvester graduated with honors in French from Columbia College in 1940, having spent a semester at the Sorbonne in Paris and a summer session at the University of Cologne in Germany.
Returning to Washington, he took night courses at George Washington University Law School. He served in the Naval Reserve during World War II as a navigator with the Naval Air Transport Service.
Following his discharge, he was a substitute teacher in Chicago and earned a master’s degree in English from the University of Chicago. He went on to serve as an instructor at the University of Minnesota, and completed his doctorate in English there in 1951.
He was an instructor at the University of Oregon, and spent five years as an assistant professor at Kansas State College before becoming a technical publications editor for Standard Oil of Ohio in Cleveland. In 1960, he became an assistant professor at Case Institute of Technology, now Case Western Reserve University, and came to UB in 1965 as an associate professor.
During his early years at UB, he was active in committees and departmental administration, and was a member of the Faculty Senate. He became a full professor of English and comparative literature in 1969. He retired in 1988.
A mainstay of Buffalo’s literary community, he was a trustee of the Niagara Erie Writers in the early 1980s, and judged various contests at UB and Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center. He also was a writer and poet in residence at several Buffalo elementary and high schools.
He won several awards and honors for his short stories and poetry. He was generous as a friend and supporter of many young local writers, and often championed their work over his own.
His wife of 64 years, the former Jean Grover, a teacher and reference librarian, died in 2011.
Survivors include a son, David; three daughters, Anne, Judith and Rachel; and five grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at UB in the fall.