Sylvia Neilson

After serving the U.S. in the WACs during World War II, Sylvia Neilson studied Swedish at the University of Stockholm in 1947. At left is U.S. Ambassador to Sweden H. Freeman Matthews.

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:

Changed Headlines

Well, at least the Cuban Flap

Took Mississippi off the Map.

Difficult Situation

Cuba is run

By a bunch of yeggs;

But how to unscramble

Scrambled eggs?

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

With racial riot

And racial scrimmage

What happens to

The U.S. image?

Today’s World

Hot wars, cold wars

Threats and shocks

How does one close

Pandora’s box?

Poor Richard (10/5/61)

Everybody picks on Nixon

With the hope that some charge

Sticks on.

Good Sports

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

Theater segregation.

(I doubt the movies that they’ll see

Are worth the tribulation.)

Some of the poems were on a more personal note.

Cocktail Dirge

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.

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