It is written in the Bible that when you find a Pearl of great price you should sell all you have and purchase it. I found my Pearl of great price in my wonderful Sybil, helpmate, mother, companion in all things for lo these many years. The purchase of such a prize is important to note. It involves selling all you have to purchase this Pearl of great price, and so I did.
When marriage unites two lives, earlier and extraneous habits and affairs must give way for the greater expectation that awaits the joining. I was a teaching assistant in the theater at Marquette, and Gillette employed her as a market analyst in Chicago. There was no question that on first meeting I recognized the value of this great Pearl, and immediately started reshaping my life to meet the challenges.
In those days one did not contemplate marriage until one could fully support a wife and coming family. That was clear to me. When we made the decision to marry I called the Teacher Placement Bureau at the University of Wisconsin; my first graduate degree was in Art Education, and I had credentials prepared for a future. I was told that that morning a position as art teacher in a high school, Mukwonago, outside of Milwaukee, had become open. I had my credentials sent, and drove out to the high school, had an interview and was hired immediately. I was given a tip on an apartment used by teachers. It was the upstairs flat of a home. I engaged the apartment and went back to the theater group with whom I was living and announced that I had a job and an apartment, all settled in that day.
My life in Milwaukee at Marquette in the theater was exciting, and its heavy schedule of teaching, designing sets, and playing onstage extras during the continuous playing of Teatro Maria was the grinding grist mil that made me an artist.
Our apartment, with three other actors, was also my painting studio. In that year I had won several prizes, had two one-man shows, sold well, and was contracted by a main street gallery for a fall one-man show. I was the new young artist in town, with much newspaper coverage. It was, however, I knew not a sustaining life for the long haul, or so I expected.
We settled into the small town, Sybil took over the CCD classes at the church, and we found the life in the lake country a happy start. When the one-man show came up, television coverage caused the principal to rent television sets so the students could see the news coverage.
In December I had a phone call during class from Dallas; it was Father Phillip Szeitz, Cistercian. We had been friends during a couple of years in graduate school at Madison, and one day he said that the Cistercians, then camped out finishing degrees, living in a Trappist monastery near Milwaukee, were all going to Dallas to help start this new Catholic university, and he got to start an Art Department at the new Catholic university. He promised that when he needed a second man he would call me.
The rest is History. We took our summer savings and flew to Europe for three weeks, as I knew I would have to teach the History of Art, and returning we visited the opening of a one-man in Neenah, Wisconsin, and drove directly to Dallas. We purchased a little house in Irving, and burrowed into life in this exciting place, at the time two buildings, four dormitories, a chapel, and a cafeteria.
The list of things we left behind included Sybil’s good job in Chicago and my life in scouting. We had returned the summer of 1960 to the camp where I had been camp director for some years, and before that every task from dishwasher up the line. She served as the camp nurse. We returned to the camp to close that phase of our lives, anticipating the new.
All of those activities, the exhibitions, high school teaching, theater work, camp directing were laid in the balance toward the purchase price of a great Pearl. Life here has been immensely rewarding for both of us as she moved from task to task in service to the growing school’s needs. Children followed and were in many ways woven into that fabric of teaching and service.
If you find a Pearl of great price, sell all you have and purchase it.
This was followed by a reading of one of my poems, "September Song."
SEPTEMBER SONG by Lyle Novinski
The September song is remembered in the fourth hour of the night
On waking against the warmth which nourishes body and soul.
Curling against all that is remembered, and pondering that which is not
I open the mind’s eye to baring branches and the leaving of the leaves.
First come gusting nights and scattered leaves from a remembered walk
Wherein returning alone to my solitary bunk I pondered a time afore.
The drainage of years elapses, the old song of dwindling days returns
Through a poet’s evocation of the blue brightness of October.
But first there is September, when the days
Dwindle down to a precious few
Awaitng in poetic jugling the odd November of our lives slowing.
I think on other images of the leaves, slipping one by one until
The dark branches in their accomplished time and color lay bare.
Images bear reading, beyond the noting of the state of their day,
Becoming for us a measure of things known and stored in passing.
If all known were gathered in stacked images of a passing life
And given on to another for measure and holding, the burden
Might become high walled load bearing and packed so tightly
That its pages be levered between covers so thickened they cannot
In all of our days of trying, be taken in to match what we have
In our own constructing days found as bright seen shapes.
Of need is the shedding of the leaves for the season’s turn, and
So with the stored images of my days passed on for use.
The shaping layering cannot be easily seen for the younger use.
It needs to follow, as the dwindling leaves of the baring progress
Toward blank limbs alinged against the bright blue of October Sky,
Give reason for the emptying and the later starting of its green cover.
Better to know, leaving all behind, that the stacking and holding
Of our days be quietly released to unburden another greening limb.
The warmth returns, curled against my body well fed,
As soul too releases bright days remembered toward October.
We at UD tend to imagine ourselves in idealistic and sublime terms – don’t we have Truth, Virtue, and Justice hanging in banners everywhere? Certainties hanging from the scrub oaks? And when we speak about what we do, our talk often gravitates toward way-too-clear intellectual and moral stances. Idealism is in our genes. We have rightly honored visionary founders like Don and Louise Cowan, really extraordinary in their educational vision, to which they gave body in our curricula and programs. But when an institution begins to lose its memory, it becomes simplified like this – as though we lived in some sort of ethereal star map of intellectual qualities. Our idealism has always made us prone to this sublimity – and, along with it, irritability and impatience – all air and fire.
But when we come to praise Sybil and Lyle Novinski, we are remembering the ground under our feet. While our founding ideals, our ordering principles, are surely blessings, Sybil and Lyle have been ministers to the genius loci of this place in other fundamental ways. Some places do have a presiding spirit, unique to that place alone, to that specific point of natural and human confluence. It is natural – the smell of the ground and the wind, the warp of the trees, the wobble of the bricks, the aspects of sky and of landscape. But this spirit is deeply human and invisible too, residing in the presences of those who have inhabited it over time, marking it if not in physical ways then in their extraordinary desires and hopes, and especially in their labors.
In our early days, in the original conception and building of this institution in unrelenting 20-hour days, Lyle and Sybil served that spirit. They counterbalanced the air and fire of its great aspirations with earth and water – they earthed us, they ministered to the ordinary, the daily life of the school. Lyle has always ministered in helping to shape the architecture and landscape of the campus – in his belief that the spaces we inhabit should reflect and shape and orient our aspirations and labor, and in his belief that the creation of art has always been a part of any great intellectual flourishing. Lyle’s shaping is visible everywhere.
Sybil’s labor over decades is less visible, but no less crucial. For the last 15 years or so she has been a guardian of memory – or at least of our history – taking on the task of ordering our archives and making them accessible, shaping out a history of the university in its first half-century, and leaving a stable ground for the future assimilation of these records. This steady labor, drawing upon her own memory of the people and events that have marked us, has been invaluable. But before Sybil had this role, she worked unceasingly for four decades as registrar and dean and associate provost, literally helping to build this fledgling institution from the ground up, one crucial decision at a time. So when I speak of Sybil’s providing us with our earth and water, I don’t mean the physical structures only, but the intricate ordinary webs of academic life, and the ministry to human beings – students, faculty – day after day. Steadiness, soundness of judgment, clarity, adaptability, innovation, one day at a time, one person at a time, one challenge at a time.
In this Sybil has always been a hero for me – and I know to many others in this room. Here is my story of Sybil’s life-changing intervention – and I know many of you have such stories, the memory of which has brought you here to honor her tonight. Sybil was the first person I met at UD – as a 17-year-old, who stumbled accidently on the UD campus when it was desolate and deserted during spring break (destroying the tires of my bike by crossing a field of stickers where the Tower now is). I found some students hanging about, who were immediately savvy enough to call Sybil at home to come out and talk with me. I found her sitting in an office, piled with boxes, in Carpenter Hall. I had already committed myself to another university, but within two minutes of speaking with Sybil, I knew that UD was my home. And we both knew it. Why this certainty? Because a young person – and an older one too, for that matter – needs the sense that someone "knows" them, someone sees who they distinctly are, and respects it. That, for me, has always been Sybil's great gift – she calmly, quietly, sees the whole person and treats that person with the most natural and simple dignity. No fuss, no condescension, but a simple implied “Yes, here you are.” For that one moment alone in her cluttered office, when she “saw” me, identified me, though a stranger to her, I will be grateful my whole life. For decades she spoke face to face with individual students, who felt, as I did, that they were "at home" with her, and in good hands, so that she could encourage them and tease them in the right direction, and intervene for them, too, if necessary. Then later finding a home as a teacher at UD, I continued to count on Sybil as a friend and counselor, because she signaled to me and affirmed the ground of our mutual faith in what we were doing. And when I would throw myself into her office raving and inflamed about something – yes, all air and fire – she brought it down to earth, so that we could both regard it reasonably, and even laugh at it. She always found a way to make things happen, with the least possible fuss and complication, and with her eyes on our common aims. For me this defines much of our genius loci – a quiet unpretentiousness, a care for others as they are, on the ground, and not simply in the air. I do think we have tried to hold to that, to remain faithful to that – the belief that learning is a personal and embodied process, each person finding it distinctively, but in the context of an institution that truly honors that searching.
Sybil’s many decades of care, in a real but invisible way, have made us who we are. The deepest life is the invisible one. She and Lyle will always be presences here, having become inextricable from the genius loci of the place.
How does one begin to laud the accomplishments of two such remarkable and honored individuals for all they have done for us?
In true Novinski fashion, we should grab a beverage and something to nosh on and sit with our friends and talk about everything we love, what we’re passionate about, what we’ve just read or seen in the gallery or on stage or heard from the pulpit. And then we should tell tales about our friends and our journeys.
I could give here a list of all the positions and roles Sybil and Lyle have played here, but we would be here all night: from editor of the Art Department newsletter to academic dean to associate Provost to university historian, Sybil has placed her stamp of excellence on whatever she has touched. Similarly, one cannot imagine UD apart from Lyle, his championing of the Art Department (note his work on Bea Haggerty’s gift to fund this art village), his aesthetic guidance of both our campuses, and his liturgical influence, exemplifying the university’s mission to both recover and renew the Western intellectual heritage.
But I won’t list all of these accomplishments. Instead, I want to touch briefly upon my journeys with Sybil and Lyle starting in the fall of 1980:
Sybil as Hestia, as Penelope in the Groundhogiad, weaving and re-weaving the strands of the university’s story to protect it from the interlopers.
When they arrived here in 1960, young and idealistic and dedicated, they fell in love with the University of Dallas and dedicated their hearts and their life works to this hallowed institution. So the least we can do is follow their example and dedicate and rededicate ourselves to UD, to its history and its memory and its archives, to its Art Department, to the Irving campus and its aesthetic windswept mid-century modern beauty, to the Rome campus and its bucolic ochre-tinted buildings, but most of all to its students. Sybil and Lyle have demonstrated a genius for both these places and for the individuals who have walked across their stages. Their attention to detail in everything, but especially in their care for each and every student as a unique and extraordinary individual, has made them beloved for generations of students. We honor them best when we emulate that singular devotion to the person.
I would like to introduce Eileen Gregory, Professor of English, who has agreed to put in words what we feel in our hearts about Sybil and Lyle.