Sylvia McLaren: ‘The Most Feisty and Tender of Souls’

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Sylvia McLaren awarded N.Z. Journalists Association Award for best feature of the year1963, re US Marines return to Wellington, New Zealand 20 years after World War II. Family photo provided by Libby Farris

“I don't think a tough question is disrespectful.” - Helen Thomas

“All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.”  - Ralph Waldo Emerson

She was a first-rate journalist with a superior mind. An award-winning public relations woman. A fearless debater. A nightclub singer. A seeker of truth. A passionate lover. A world traveler. A humanitarian. A bawdy storyteller. A stalwart friend. And a loving aunt to some very lucky nieces and nephews.

She mixed a gin and tonic that would knock you on your butt and told jokes that would leave you doubled over and crying with laughter. Then she’d crush out her menthol cigarette in an old ashtray and say, “Let’s get back to work.”

In fact, the old expression of “peeling back the layers of the onion” comes to mind when I think of my dear friend and former colleague Sylvia McLaren who passed away in December at the age of 94. Everyone who met her came away with a fascinating story or an uproarious anecdote. I asked several of our mutual friends – all former colleagues – to share their memories with me and I learned something new from each of them.

Editor's note: Friends and family of Sylvia McLaren will gather in tribute at 10 a.m. Friday, Feb. 15, at the San Antonio Botanical Gardens.

Sylvia McLaren at work in New Zealand, probably in the 1960s. Family photo provided by Libby Farris

Sylvia McLaren at work in New Zealand, probably in the 1960s. Family photo provided by Libby Farris

A self-described “Kiwi” – she was born in New Zealand in 1918 and was very proud of her roots - Sylvia Auchterlonie McLaren never met a stranger, as another old saying goes. And while “Kiwi” may be slang for a New Zealander, I always thought it was a misnomer when applied to her. For starters, kiwis are flightless birds. (Sylvia flew all over the world and soared in her career and personal life.) And they aren’t all that pretty. (Sylvia was a beautiful young woman and strikingly handsome in later years.)

Her fearless nature, outgoing personality, inquiring mind and zest for adventure created a “perfect storm” for an international communications career that began in her early 20s and lasted until she retired at the age of 80.

In the early 1940s she signed on with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), an organization founded during World War II to give aid to European and Asian countries that had been liberated from the Axis powers. Headquartered in New York, the organization eventually represented 44 nations and had approximately 12,000 employees. Sylvia was one of them, working as a communications officer in China, Italy and the United States.

In all, she spent a decade with UNRRA and other U.N.-related agencies. Five of those years were spent in Rome – a city that remained close to her heart for the rest of her life.

“Essentially, she lived the movie, 'Three Coins in the Fountain,'” her niece Libby Eager Farris told the San Antonio Express-News. “She lived in a beautiful villa with two other Americans and had passionate love affairs with Italian men, drank wine and rode on motor scooters...”

She once told me that while working in an ancient walled city in China, she was part of a United Nations airlift when Mao Zedong came to power and expelled all foreigners. As I recall, she told the story in the most blasé way imaginable, while I – still a college student and very impressionable – stood looking at her in utter amazement, with my mouth hanging open! (“Wow!” I marveled. “This woman has really LIVED!”)

And that is an understatement. I don’t think an adverb exists in the English language for just how fully Sylvia McLaren experienced life. She drank it in. She inhaled it. To paraphrase Sinatra, “she ate it up and spit it out.”

You name it, she did it. She traveled. She interviewed famous people. She won writing awards. And she had some interesting sidelines. (For instance, she loved to regale her friends with stories of her brief career as a nightclub singer and her “torrid” affair with legendary bandleader and clarinetist Artie Shaw.)

For Sylvia, life was a marvelous, raucous rollercoaster ride of sights, smells, tastes and experiences. She climbed aboard as a young woman in New Zealand and rode it through nine decades of good times, bad times, but always – always – fascinating times.

Sylvia McLaren awarded N.Z. Journalists Association Award for best feature of the year1963, re US Marines return to Wellington, New Zealand 20 years after World War II. Family photo provided by Libby Farris

Sylvia McLaren awarded N.Z. Journalists Association Award for best feature of the year1963, re US Marines return to Wellington, New Zealand 20 years after World War II. Family photo provided by Libby Farris

In the late 1960s, when she took a job at Idaho State University – writing and editing various publications – she already had amassed an impressive number of journalism awards in her native country and seen much of the world. She was nearing 50 and decided she may as well add a college education to her life experiences. (She told me that her high school education in New Zealand was more rigorous than some college curricula in the United States.) So she earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English at that Western institution of higher learning. Then in 1974, she came to San Antonio, where she joined the public relations staff at St. Mary’s University. For the next 24 years, she served San Antonio’s oldest university well and retired as editor of the Gold & Blue alumni magazine in 1998 at the age of 80.

She received many accolades for her work at St. Mary’s, including multiple awards from Women in Communications and the Public Relations Society of America. Her writing was clear, straightforward and effective. She applied the basics of old-school journalism to everything she wrote – and earned the respect of faculty, administrators, co-workers and the media. Her devotion to factual reporting that was also persuasive and meaningful helped mold the public image of St. Mary’s, which is the oldest Catholic university in Texas and one of the most respected in the Southwest.

I was one of the lucky St. Mary’s students who landed an internship with Sylvia during her heyday. Because of her, I learned at age 19 that public relations is not all glamour and glitz. It’s plain hard work. I also learned that the best public relations practitioners are strong writers, well-schooled in the basics of journalism. And if you do it right, you can achieve great things for the organizations you represent.

I was already the features editor of the student newspaper at St. Mary’s. So when I turned in my first news release to Sylvia, I was expecting her to praise it. Instead, she slashed it to ribbons with her trademark red pen. Then she reviewed it with me. “Don’t you think this sentence would be better here and that this word is superfluous? And, good Lord, what is THIS?” She went on and on. Her strident voice and merciless pen – which, I soon discovered, could bring even English professors and university presidents to their knees - brought tears to my eyes. I thought I was a total failure, but I rewrote the release and eventually she deemed it good enough to distribute to the local media.

Sylvia McLaren with Ken Slavin in September 2002 when she was 84 years old.  She was only about five feet tall, but a towering figure in the San Antonio public relations world.

Sylvia McLaren with Ken Slavin in September 2002 when she was 84 years old. She was only about five feet tall, but a towering figure in the San Antonio public relations world.

Years later, I told Sylvia that her editorial “pruning” had scared me to death. She was genuinely surprised. “What good would it have done to baby you? You were there to learn. If I didn’t teach you, it would have been wrong.” Boy, was she right!

A few years after graduation, I worked in the development and public relations offices of St. Mary’s and Sylvia and I became both colleagues and friends. And well into the 1990s when I was firmly established in my PR career and winning awards of my own, I remained a freelancer for her, writing several feature stories for the Gold & Blue. The fact that she paid me to write for her told me she respected me. She didn’t suffer fools and she certainly didn’t suffer bad writers!

Many of our former colleagues tell similar stories. Nancy Arispe, who now directs communications for the UT Health Science Center, was a young 30-something when she became director of the communications shop at St. Mary’s – where Sylvia already had worked for many years.

“For Sylvia, the disciplined practice of public relations was not grounded in a proofed ‘blue line’ or a clever lead or even the mastery of AP style. For her, the profession had to be based in integrity,” Arispe recalls. “I knew from the start that I should never attempt to ‘manage’ Sylvia. All I needed to do was to step out of her way -- and then get ready to learn.”

Arispe says the lessons she learned remain with her to this day. “I learned how to grip onto life and love the wild ride. How to stop and pay attention to things that mattered. And always how to hold your own in the midst of strong opposing tides. For it was the right thing to do. These lessons I will always hold deep in my core, close in my heart. For she was, in the same breath, the most feisty – and the most tender – of souls.”

Candace Kuebker, who is senior communications director at St. Mary’s today, succeeded Sylvia as editor of the Gold & Blue in 1998 – but not before passing a rigorous year-long apprenticeship. “She was demanding, but I learned a lot from her,” she wrote recently. “We'd argue about the magazine sometimes - she always won - but one day, she said, ‘When you become editor, you can do what you want, but I'm editor now.’ That she believed I could, and would, be her successor was inspiring. She had said that she wouldn't retire until there was someone she trusted to take over.”

San Antonio writer and blogger gary whitford, who worked with Sylvia in the early 1980s, believes Sylvia’s contributions to university publications symbolize something greater.

“She spent her life helping people remember college days she was not a part of, and elevating universities she did not attend,” he says, stressing that she and many others whose hearts are grounded in journalism, but who choose to work in public relations and institutional publications, contribute in profound ways that aren’t always apparent to casual observers. “Their work shapes our culture. Sylvia had an excellent, unforgettable personality. But she also belonged to a wonderful class of journalists whose names might not be known beyond certain circles – but whose work benefits our community.”

After retiring, Sylvia settled into a small apartment – she called it a “lovely cottage” – at the Meadows assisted living community in San Antonio. She also took up birding. For a few years, she continued to drive, often stopping by St. Mary’s to drop off cookies (but don’t think for a moment that she baked them!), coffee and a chat. She even had a gentleman caller who loved taking pictures of her and her friends.

She had prepared financially and was able to live quite independently – with a bit of help – for many years. She traveled when she could – returning to her homeland one last time at the age of 81 and also stopping off in Bali, a place she had always wanted to see. She enjoyed time with her nieces and nephews. And she entertained friends and former university colleagues in the Meadows dining hall, hosting lively luncheon gatherings where she still asked probing (some would say “blunt”) questions, commented on current events, swapped gossip and kept everyone in stitches. Even when her body began to fail and she was forced to use a walker, she never lost her vivacity or her joie de vivre.

As accomplished and worldly as Sylvia was, she had a fascinating quality that endeared her to everyone she knew: She didn’t have a self-conscious bone in her body.

“Sylvia had the charming gift of not being aware of just how uniquely special she was,” Nancy Arispe told me. “I remember her walking into my office, perplexed and put upon, to ask, ‘How is it that people on the phone ALWAYS ask me -- right off, before they say anything else at all -- if I'm FOREIGN born, when the only thing I've ever said to them is "HAL - oh"!!??

When I would visit or call her on the phone, I’d ask, “How are you doing, Sylvia?” She always replied, in that clipped and distinctive New Zealand accent, “Why, I’m quite PERKY!”

God bless her. In my mind’s eye, she’s still smoking a cigarette – poised between lips tinted with bright red lipstick – silvery hair cut short and sort of mussed, with a stiff gin and tonic in one hand and a journalist’s notepad in another, and getting ready to work on another engrossing story that perfectly combines fine reporting with heart, soul and a greater good in mind.

She was 94 when she died. But that was still too soon. The world needs more Sylvia McLarens.

Oh, how I miss her.

6 thoughts on “Sylvia McLaren: ‘The Most Feisty and Tender of Souls’

  1. Thank you for such a great piece on my Great Aunt Sylvia. As a child, I often received my letters to her returned to me with her edits. I remember having the same feeling of expecting her to praise me when she instead was pointing out that there is “a rat” in “separate.” I haven’t misspelled it since (that or the word stationery, as in “Aunt Sylvia, do you like my new Lisa Frank stationery?”) and I will not forget her favorite words sprinkled throughout her conversations. She was always “perky,” pronounced with the bite of a lime-garnished G&T, and always proud of her New Zealand “cult-chure.” She was exotic, unexpected, loud, and witty — a memory that will remain vivid in my mind for life.

    • Dear Rachel: I am glad you liked my article. Your Great Aunt Sylvia was a larger-than-life person to me. I will never forget her – and neither will her many friends and colleagues here in San Antonio. I am very sorry I couldn’t be at the memorial service. Unfortunately, work deadlines kept me from being able to break away that morning. But I have heard that the gathering was wonderful. I love that Sylvia corrected your letters, although it appears we both had that same feeling of “I did great” when the truth was “you can do better.” Ha! Sylvia’s writing standards were so incredibly high. I am convinced that all of us became better writers because of her! I miss her. She was such a big part of my life in the earlier years and even in later years I would just love talking with her and listening to her stories – and her marvelous laugh! She is a role model for us all. My condolences to you and your family on losing your great aunt – and please know that all of you AND Sylvia are in my prayers. Most sincerely, Ken

  2. Thank you so much Ken for opening another glimpse into Sylvia’s vast and eclectic coterie of colleagues and friends outside her family. I just spent the last week before the memorial sifting through my Aunt’s enormous collection of photographs, articles, and letters…my god the letters! Always carboned in duplicate to share with her two sisters: my mother, Betty Eager and aunt, Nora Nye. It was an exhausting and riveting task. Which stories and images to share? Which images to evoke? Two favorites: Sylvia in a polaroid photo, sitting proudly astride a saddled long-horn steer taken when she must have been 80 – bold and brassy. And the images that we can only conjure in our heads, including the description she provided me once: a quietly intimate detail of her evening with Artie Shaw. In the wee hours, after “perfectly innocent canoodling” and with her ankle propped upon his knee, he carefully trimmed the ragged seam of her lisle stocking with a pair of nail scissors. Vivid in all aspects, in all senses, always.

    • Dear Janet: I am so sorry I couldn’t be at the memorial service to meet you and your family. But I am so happy that you liked my article. I wish there had been more time so I could have visited with you and even perhaps included that picture with the steer! I am still so sad at heart to lose Sylvia. As you can tell, she made an indelible impression on me and so many other people here in San Antonio. I will always be so very, very happy that I knew her! God bless you for going through all of her letters, etc. An enormous task, yes, but what a legacy for you and your family! The art of letter writing has faded somewhat (although I guess e-mail is a FORM of it – though Sylvia would never think so, I am certain) – so it is extra-special that you have her letters to cherish and pass down through your family. It was an honor to be asked to write about Sylvia and I am honored that she was my friend and an early mentor in my career. All my best wishes to you and your family! – Ken

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