Prof. Sydney Blair dies following illness

Students, faculty reflect on creative writing professor’s impact


Blair was an individually accomplished writer and long-time University faculty member.

Courtesy University of Virginia

Assoc. English Prof. Sydney Blair died Monday of an unexpected illness. Blair was 67 and was scheduled to take leave for the spring semester.

Her death came as a shock to her students. Some of Blair’s Intermediate Nonfiction Creative Writing students recalled she left early from their final seminar on Dec. 6, saying she was feeling unwell.

Blair’s students and colleagues described her devotedness to her students’ improvement, her candid and infectious zest for life and her ability to foster an empowering, welcoming environment for all writers to share.

“She is hard to capture,” third-year College student Bailey Jarriel, who was enrolled in Blair’s course, said. “She was just so excited about what people had to say and so excited for us to be writers.”

Blair was an individually accomplished writer and long-time University faculty member.

Her novel, “Buffalo,” won the Virginia Prize for Fiction in 1991. It was hailed for its subtleties in capturing the unique plight of the Vietnam War generation.

Blair was published in numerous literary journals and publications, including the Virginia Quarterly Review and The Daily Progress.

Blair served as faculty sponsor for the Master of Fine Arts program's literary journal, Meridian, and helped to usher the undergraduate concentration for the Area Program in Literary Prose into existence. Blair also directed the Creative Writing Program from 1991 to 1995 and from 2006 to 2009.

Blair was a 1986 graduate of the University’s Creative Writing MFA program that she herself would become invested in. She helped craft courses and raise private funding that led to the program fully funding all of its MFA students.

English Prof. Lisa Russ Spaar, who was a close friend of Blair’s, said Blair had a perceptive personality and ardor for writing.

“She had a discerning heart, a refreshing absence of ego and personal agenda, and held herself to the highest standards of integrity, rigor, and responsibility — all while deeply enjoying life and the lives of others,” Spaar said.

Fourth-year College student Adam Willis, a student of Blair’s, said he found her to be an impactful professor.

“[She was] more willing than most professors are to take you aside and give you compliments where they were fit,” Willis said. “She was able to help you recognize your strengths in ways you wouldn't have otherwise seen them.”

Blair’s gentle confidence in her students is one characteristic Jarriel said helped her find herself in college.

“You could hear her voice rooting for you as you wrote and could hear her laughing every time you tried out a risky joke,” Jarriel said. “Writing can often feel like shouting at a void, but she was always kind of felt in that void — trusting and riding the emotion of your work and clapping for you throughout.”

Willis said he had planned to stop by her office often just to talk next semester. Jarriel echoed his sentiment.

“I could just picture her helping me into [graduate school],” Jarriel said, describing a mental image of Blair cheering her on. “She just had this gumption for life and for writing and for teaching. She’s so vivacious.”

Willis said Blair made people feel comfortable and that she engaged all of her students, who had a vast diversity of interests.

“She made efforts to learn from [her students], even if there didn’t seem to be any particular reason that we would be able to teach her anything,” Willis said.

English Prof. and novelist Chris Tilghman said Blair’s death is a loss to the community.

“We people of words have few words for this one. Losing Sydney is unbearable to all of us, faculty and students,” Tilghman said. “None of us can imagine what it will be like to reconvene in January without her.”

Blair is survived by a son and daughter-in-law, a daughter, two grandchildren, a brother and sister-in-law and a sister and brother-in-law. Memorial arrangements have not been announced.

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