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No ‘Ordinary’ Friend

The story of Sylvia Pott began in 1930 when Miss Foote married Mr. Hand at the Swarthmore Friends Meeting House.

Sylvia’s mother, Eleanor Foote ’25, grew up a block from campus in an expansive home whose core had once been the town water tower. A lively young woman from a Quaker household, she loved the College, where she made lifelong friends and was captain of the field hockey team. At a time when few women had much formal education beyond high school, “Footie” went to graduate school at Cornell, where she met her future husband, David Hand, on a blind date.

Sylvia was the couple’s first child. Her happy early years were spent in Ithaca, N.Y., where her father taught biochemistry at Cornell. Multiple moves later, Sylvia applied to Swarthmore from Geneva, N.Y., convinced the admissions committee took an interest in her because her new town seemed “like a foreign country.”

When she arrived at Swarthmore in 1948, the ratio of men to women was 2 and a half to 1, “nice when you entered as a freshman,” she notes. Like her mother, Sylvia had many friends and an active life that included playing volleyball and tennis, singing in the student musical, and tackling hard academic work. She majored in psychology, which she “endured” rather than enjoyed, focused as it was on “statistics and running rats in mazes” instead of her preference, social psychology.

Again following in “Footie’s” footsteps, Sylvia went on to graduate school at Cornell, where she found a version of psychology more compatible with her interests, earning a master’s degree in child development and family relations. She met and married her husband, Gordon Pott, shortly afterward.

“It was love at first sight,” she says.

Within a few years, they had a thriving family of four children and settled in Summit, N.J., a community they chose specifically for its diversity.

“I am very proud of the fact that I was an at-home mother,” she says. “When [the media] started saying ‘working mothers,’ they weren’t thinking of people in the home who were working 15 hours a day to take care of the kids.”

She did, however, work part-time outside the home beginning when her youngest child was 3. Sylvia taught preschool for 16 years, a job she loved. Later, she enjoyed working at Summit High School helping older kids from multiple backgrounds—some of whom were her former preschoolers—find employment.

Sylvia and her husband retired to Cape Cod nearly a quarter of a century ago.

“I still play tennis and platform tennis outdoors, unless it’s 20 degrees,” she says. “That’s the limit!”

Another of Sylvia’s favorite activities is singing with a small group at local nursing homes and talking to the residents post-performance.

“One receives more than one gives,” says Sylvia. “Music is a great connector for all ages.”

Remarkably, when Sylvia attended the College “there was no music department…no chorus,” she laments, “and look at the music department now!—I just ache, wishing it had been that way when I was there!”

In her time, Swarthmore was an “ivory tower, for sure,” Sylvia says. “The one person who might have been considered NOT Caucasian was a girl from Hawaii…That was it for the entire College!” Yet somehow the school “made me appreciate diversity even though I was not directly exposed to it. Philosophically, it became part of me forever.”

In addition to the critical role that belief played in choosing where to raise children, it was an important factor in Sylvia’s decision to open her Cape Cod home to many international students and others in need of a temporary place to stay. Also, by using her house as a bed & breakfast, Sylvia raises funds for a group called the Philanthropic Educational Organization (PEO) Sisterhood, which promotes educational opportunities for women worldwide.

She finally was able to attend a College reunion in 2017—her 65th. Sylvia and the only other classmate present carried each end of their class banner, feeling proud and pleased to be there. Prior to that reunion, Sylvia maintained her strong ties to the College as class secretary for many years. Since alumni who sent information for class notes tended to focus on their achievements, she developed a strong sense that “no one knew there were quite ordinary people at Swarthmore.”

Counting herself among the latter group, she writes:

“A note about my quite ordinary but happy life: On behalf of anyone else who has never published a book or run a company, I feel the need to say how much Swarthmore formed my adult life and thought. It laid the groundwork from my grandmother, who lived in town, to my mother, class of ’24, to my own beliefs of Quaker simplicity, intellectual curiosity, individuality and acceptance of different viewpoints. I am really the person I am today at age 86 mainly due to my Swarthmore background! I never thought of applying anywhere else. Little did I know how challenging this college would be and how competitive to get into but I worked hard and learned so much.

A good marriage to Roger Pott’s ’52 brother Gordon, resulted in four wonderful children, seven grandchildren, five great-grandchildren. Who could ask for anything more? Well, perhaps that one of them would have chosen Swarthmore College!”

Swarthmorean Lives