Dr. Phillip “Tom” Sylvester passed away on July 13 in Middlesex Hospital, following a stroke. He was the only child of Kimmel Sylvester and Margaret (Molyneaux) Sylvester, and was born on April 1, 1936, in Evanston, Illinois.
Tom is survived by his wife Kathleen Sheehan Watanabe and three children: Steven Sylvester of Cheshire, Connecticut; Susan Ann Sylvester of Zamora, Spain; and Jonathan Watanabe of New Haven, Connecticut. Tom also has six grandchildren: Kelly Ann Sylvester of Boston, Massachusetts; Kevin and Matthew Sylvester of Cheshire, Connecticut; Lukas and Zoë Sylvester de Hernandez of Zamora, Spain; and Pablo Hernandez de Anton of Zamora, Spain and Oslo, Norway.
Tom had a rich career as a psychologist, town official, and political activist. His work in these areas was motivated by a lifelong commitment to social and environmental justice and by his powerful investment in his immediate community. His friends and family remember his sharp sense of humor, his emphatic politics, and his skill as a brilliant conversationalist. It is a testament to Tom’s personality that he composed the following obituary himself, revising it over the course of many years. It thus provides a window not only into the professional accomplishments that mattered most to him, but into the stubborn individualism that he brought even to this final remembrance. The following text, written by Tom, has been lightly edited for grammar and clarity.
For the past 31 years, Tom worked as a psychotherapist in private practice in Middletown and Madison, after serving for many years in the public sector. He was a former consultant to the Elmcrest Psychiatric Institute, a former Executive Director of The Connection, Inc., and the first Deputy Director of the Community Health Center in Middletown.
Tom was also the lead planner for Middlesex, New London, Windham and Tolland counties in developing the State of Connecticut Drug Abuse Prevention plan in 1973. The plan called for the decriminalization of marijuana in 1974. The recommendation was not adopted by the State.
Tom has served as a board member for the Middlesex Mental Health Council, The Connection, Inc., and the Advisory Board of Connecticut Legal Services. He was a former member of the Selectman’s Task Force on Substance Abuse in Madison, and a consultant to both the Grove School in Madison and the Connecticut University School of Family Medicine Physician’s Preceptorship Program in Farmington, CT.
From 1969 to 1972, Tom served as Director of Parks and Recreation in Old Saybrook after coming from Huntington, Long Island, where he had served as Assistant Superintendent of Parks and Recreation for many years.
Tom, when elected as the minority Democratic Selectman in Westbrook, enlisted the support of the majority Republican 1st and 2nd Selectman in unanimously passing the first Town sponsored anti-war resolution in the U.S. The resolution called on President Nixon to stop the war in Vietnam.
At Adelphi University in Long Island in 1966, Tom trained VISTA volunteers to empower migrant laborers working in potato and duck farms on Long Island.
Tom operated a large water ski school in Manhasset Bay, Long Island in 1960. Actor Paul Newman and his son Scott were regular customers at the ski school. Tom later developed the first Town sponsored water ski instruction program in the United States in Huntington NY.
During this time period, he designed aluminum water skis sold by Sears Roebuck & Co.
Tom, while a Selectman in Westbrook, worked with the Town planning commission to adopt regulations banning any new gas stations on the Boston Post Road, as well as other environmental issues. The Town approved these plans.
Tom was a co-founder of Ralph Nader’s Connecticut Earth Action Group (CEAG) which evolved into Connecticut Citizens’ Action Group (CCAG).He also was a co-founder of the Saybrook Alternative School in Deep River.
As a member of the Valley Shore Clergy and Laity against the War in Vietnam, Tom organized buses to the Washington DC Moratoriums Against the War. He received some notoriety when, as a Town Selectman in Westbrook, he delivered a faux “pineapple” bomb to Governor Meskill to protest the Governor’s refusal to take a stand on the Vietnam War.
One of his memorable actions was bringing lawsuits against the State of Connecticut and Federal government when they threatened to cut off funding to the Connection program. Tom, Executive Director of the Connection Board of Directors at the time, refused to divulge the names of clients in the program to State and Federal agencies, citing confidentiality of clients.The State and Federal agencies acquiesced and funding was continued.
A community and political activist, Tom enjoyed his family and his many friends and was an avid sailor, often sailing solo on L.I. Sound. He also enjoyed hiking and organic gardening. He was still working to support environmental, inequality, and equal justice issues at the time of his death.
In lieu of flowers, he wished people would donate to a charitable group of their choosing.
His family, honoring his request, will spread his ashes on the waters of the Connecticut River, the waters he loved to sail. Tom asked that his service be one of celebration, as he lived every day to the fullest.
Hark, now hear the sailor’s cry
Smell the sea and feel the sky
Let your soul and spirit fly
Into the Mystic.
From “Into the Mystic,” Van Morrison, 1970
Carry me on the waves to the land I’ve never been
Carry me to the waves to the lands I’ve never seen
We can sail, we can sail
Sail way, sail away, sail away.
From “Orinoco Flow,” Enya, 1988