Teacher, WAC Army officer, author and poet, Sylvia Neilson was a very modest person, but she had an interesting career.
At Wilmington High School in the 1920’s, she was the editor of the student newspaper, The Alpha. At Boston University, she was vice-president of her class. She taught English and Latin at Wilmington High School for nine years. After the U.S. entered World War II, she volunteered for the Women’s Army Corps, eventually retiring as a major.
Sylvia Dorothy Neilson was born near Silver Lake in Wilmington on Oct. 23, 1912.
Her parents were both immigrants. Her father was Danish, her mother Swedish. Peter Neilson was a stone mason and contractor, and was the first immigrant to hold public office in Wilmington, serving on the Wilmington School Committee and the Board of Library Trustees. Her mother ran a Swedish gift shop in her living room, and served as correspondent for Svea, a Swedish American newspaper.
Her brother was Capt. Larz Neilson, who founded the Town Crier in 1955.
Before she reached her teens, Sylvia was delivering milk in a pony cart around Silver Lake. Former Speaker of the House “Tip” O’Neill wrote that he remembered her in that role. She also ran the newspaper delivery business at Tattersal’s news stand during the winter, when the store was closed.
She graduated from Boston University in the darkest days of the Depression, and was fortunate to land a teaching job at Wilmington High School. The pay was $600 a year. Her father had no work, and her pay went to supporting the family.
Pearl Harbor changed the lives of most Americans. The Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps was established in May 1942, and Sylvia volunteered for service. She served as a teacher throughout the war, enabling officers to communicate orders effectively. Her sister Bernice became an Army nurse and served in the South Pacific.
After the war, she went to Sweden and Denmark to study languages. She attended the universities of Stockholm and Copenhagen, on the G.I. Bill. She was able to introduce herself to cousins during this period and became the link between the American Neilsons and their Danish cousins.
Sylvia was called back into the WACs in 1951 during the Korean War. After teaching at Fort Lee, Virginia, she put in for company duty. She soon became Capt. Sylvia Neilson with 120 women at her command.
Her family was quite proud, and her father arranged for her to speak at the Wilmington Rotary Club in June 1953. Her remarks there give a good contrast to the role of women in the armed services today. At the time, a woman’s role was to perform tasks that would free men for service at the front.
“If you don’t believe women are useful in the Army, you should have my job,” she said. “Every day, I get phone calls from this officer or that office, wanting to know if I can’t assign a WAC to some particular duty. It would seem that they think we have them stacked up on shelves the way a supply sergeant would have materials stacked.”
Two years later, she was transferred to Germany and promoted to major.
In 1957, she returned to Wilmington, with an orange Volkswagen, one of the first VWs in this country. She briefly went to work on the Town Crier.
Before long, though, she packed up and moved to Florida, taking her mother with her. She secured a teaching job in Plant City and bought a home there.
For several years, she wrote short humorous poems for the Town Crier, published under the name of Susie’s Sonnets. They usually were based more on world affairs, rather than local events. For example, 50 years ago, there had been quite a bit of racial agitation in Mississippi. Then, along came the Cuban missile crisis. She wrote:
Well, at least the Cuban Flap
Took Mississippi off the Map.
Cuba is run
By a bunch of yeggs;
But how to unscramble
Mirror, Mirror on the Wall
With racial riot
And racial scrimmage
What happens to
The U.S. image?
Hot wars, cold wars
Threats and shocks
How does one close
Poor Richard (10/5/61)
Everybody picks on Nixon
With the hope that some charge
It isn’t who’s losin’
It isn’t who’s winnin’
The views today is centered on
The players’ dirty linen.
Black and White Film
They’re thrown in jail or protest ‘gainst
(I doubt the movies that they’ll see
Are worth the tribulation.)
Some of the poems were on a more personal note.
Peanuts and chips
Crackers and dips
Why must they all
End up on my hips?
The Toddler Threat
The population explosion
One cannot dispute
But at age three
They’re awfully cute.
It is the worst
In all our annals
Oh, for Grandpa’s
Old red flannels.
It’s an ill wind
This winter’s bills
Make all recoil
Except for those
Who deal in oil.
She taught at Plant City for 15 years. She once heard a teenager telling a friend, “She used to be an Army sergeant!” As a major, she had been well above the rank of sergeant. But the boys were so intimidated at the thought of her being a sergeant, she wasn't about to correct them.
After retirement, she wrote a family history, traveling to Denmark and Minnesota to research the book. It was published in 1977. There is a copy of it in the Wilmington Memorial Library.
She died on her 87th birthday, Oct. 23, 1999.