Sydney Hall Blair
May 2, 1949–Dec 12, 2016
Writing professor led a truly creative life
Sydney Hall Blair (Grad ’86) lived a life rich in creativity as a writer, teacher and mentor to hundreds of UVA students. The associate professor of creative writing died December 12. Associate director of the department Jeb Livingood, who shared a common grad school mentor, describes Ms. Blair as “always the brightness, the cheer in our day. … She had a devilish sense of humor, saw the many foibles of those around her—and herself … she was magnetic that way.”
Professor Blair grew up as a “Navy brat,” living in England, Hawaii, South Carolina and Connecticut. She began college at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Virginia, later transferring to George Washington University, from which she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1971. She developed a passion for art history early on, and after graduation began working in the Corcoran Gallery of Art in the book acquisitions department.
In 1972, Ms. Blair switched gears and moved to a farm in Maryland, where she grew vegetables, made goat milk cheese and raised chickens. She married Michael Swanson in 1974, and they moved to Cobham, Virginia, where their children Abbie and Tom were born. She worked in the gift shop and managing books at Monticello to help support the family.
At the University, Ms. Blair earned her master of fine arts degree in creative writing in 1986. Shortly after finishing her degree, she began working as an administrator in the creative writing office, and in 1996 she turned to teaching full-time. She was with the department for 30 years, and as Mr. Livingood describes, “her office door was always ajar, voices from within, like some popular café or restaurant.” She also served as the program director from 1991 to 1995 and from 2006 to 2009.
Ms. Blair published many short stories and essays in journals, including the American Scholar, Callaloo, and the Virginia Quarterly Review. Her novel Buffalo (Penguin Group) won the Virginia Prize for Fiction in 1991.
She had a true passion for the writing program and helped to develop courses as well as secure private donations that ultimately led to the program fully funding all of its MFA students. She also served as faculty sponsor for the program’s literary journal, Meridian.
Ms. Blair loved spending time with her friends and family, traveling and supporting the arts. She was a founding member of Le Mot Juste, a Charlottesville ladies’ cocktail society, and her favorite course to teach was Writers in Paris, which focused on the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and others of the Lost Generation.
Always up for an adventure, Ms. Blair recently traveled cross-country with her daughter and to England to visit childhood friends. She also spearheaded an annual family trip to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where she enjoyed collecting seashells and building sand castles with her granddaughters.
Survivors include her two children, grandchildren Avery and Callie Swanson, brother Dennis Blair and sister Julia Geier. A creative writing fellowship in her name has been established to support women graduate students in the MFA program.
Cheryl Ann Bass (Law ’81) of Hampton, Virginia, died January 15, 2017. At the University, Ms. Bass was a member of the Black Law Students Association. She moved to Hampton in 2003 to be closer to her family and to assist with the care of her mother. Survivors include her two children, two sisters, three nieces, two nephews and three great-nieces.
James Ormond “Jimmy” Butler (Law ’82) of Roanoke, Virginia, died October 31, 2016. He earned his bachelor’s degree from the College of William and Mary in 1978 and his law degree from UVA in 1982. After three years practicing law, Mr. Butler abandoned the field and traveled to South America and Mexico for a year, where he learned to speak Spanish fluently. He then began his career in a major financial institution, where he worked for more than 20 years. Throughout his career, he lived and worked in Mexico City, New York, London, Madrid, Kiev and Moscow. He especially enjoyed working in Moscow in the 1990s, where he learned to speak basic Russian. He also had a passion for politics, which he inherited from his father, and a passion for music, inherited from his mother. In the 2010s, he took up painting and enjoyed summer workshops at the Slade School in London, where he showed a talent for plein-air painting. When he wasn’t painting outdoor scenes, he was exploring the outskirts of European cities on his bike. Survivors include his three brothers, including Marshall Whitfield Butler (Col ’87), and six nieces and nephews.
Douglas Gene Schneebeck (Law ’85) of Albuquerque, New Mexico, died October 17, 2016. After graduating with his law degree, Mr. Schneebeck practiced briefly in Virginia, but New Mexico called to him, and he moved to Albuquerque in 1985. He joined the law firm of Modrall Sperling Roehl Harris & Sisk, where he befriended colleagues and clients alike. Although he was a highly accomplished lawyer, his greatest joy was the life he created with his wife and children. Mr. Schneebeck, who was a strong track and field athlete in high school and college, coached athletes at Albuquerque High School, Monzano High School and the University of New Mexico. He was also an avid skier and sailor, and became extremely passionate about cycling, traveling from the Rocky Mountains to the Alps with his bike. The 2010 diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis did not diminish his passion, and he helped to found the Adaptive Sports Program, volunteering to teach those with physical disabilities how to use specialized equipment for adaptive skiing. Mr. Schneebeck continued to bike, transitioning to specially configured cycles and winning Paralympic medals in Montreal, Rome and Prague as well as a 2013 U.S. national championship. He also established the Oso High Endurance Sports Foundation, raising more than $400,000 for ALS research and patient support. Survivors include his wife of 26 years; two daughters; a son; his parents, including Joann Patton (Educ ’70); and two sisters.
Jeffrey William Taylor (Col ’86 L/M) of Moseley, Virginia, died February 16, 2016. Mr. Taylor was employed primarily in sales and marketing throughout his career, and he held positions at General Mills, Breyers, Swedish Match and Aker Wade Power Technologies. Before his illness, Mr. Taylor’s favorite activities were boating and spending time outdoors with his family. He was also passionate about politics and always enjoyed a lively debate on politics and the U.S. free markets. Survivors include his son and daughter and their mother.