It’s rare to meet an angel on Earth, especially when that angel is hell on wheels. I make that observation with love and gratitude for the late Sylvia Smith, who died Nov. 3 after an extended period of failing health.
Perhaps no other individual did more to knit Los Osos into a cohesive community (before the Never-Ending Sewer Saga split the town into various factions) than Sylvia — and she performed the bulk of her good deeds while seated in a wheelchair, muscular dystrophy ravaging her body further and further with each passing year, her hands and fingers becoming cruelly twisted.
Such a condition can turn a person bitter and inward, but not Sylvia. With an ever-present beguiling smile framed by round, rosy cheeks, when asked whether she thought she’d gotten the short end of life’s stick, she’d sanguinely say, “No, it’s just the nature of the beast.” As she led various efforts to better the community, her philosophy was that life was a half-full glass, not half empty.
In the event you may not be familiar with Sylvia, here’s a thumbnail sketch of her life: She and her late husband, Karl, moved from Sunnyvale to Los Osos in the mid-’70s after the couple discovered the community while on vacation. They initially owned a gas station but later bought an auto parts store.
Though an athlete in her youth, competing on swim and tennis teams in high school, she began walking, by her own definition, with a “funny gait” while still in school. She later began losing strength in her upper body and was misdiagnosed as being post-polio.
When she and Karl moved to Los Osos, she was still walking. But in 1980, while stepping into her kitchen, she fell and had three pins poorly placed in a femur; she never walked again.
Yet she ran the store, became an active member of the Los Osos Chamber of Commerce — serving as a director, president and eventually executive director for a number of years — and was a founding member of the Los Osos Community Services District. As if her plate wasn’t full enough, she helped coordinate the now-defunct Bear Festivals, carnival-like affairs that drew friends, families and neighbors together.
She was also an active member of the Los Osos Community Organization (“We’re LOCO!”), a group of folks who staged fun runs in order to underwrite the bear-centric murals that grace the town. She secured $100,000 to help expand and upgrade the town’s cramped library, and she was the driving force behind the creation of the town’s two signature bridge bears that guard the Los Osos Valley Road and South Bay Boulevard entrances into the community.
Meanwhile, Karl, a machinist by trade, kept her mobile by figuring out new ways to customize her powered wheelchair, and by building a lift and special hand controls for her van in order for her to keep her independence. And yet, in another seemingly twist of cruel fate, her van caught fire in her garage, destroying it and another car, while doing damage to their home.
The community, recognizing that one of their treasures was in a tight spot, rallied and raised enough money to replace the specialized van as well as the couple’s other ruined items. It’s little wonder that she was honored as the Los Osos Citizen of the Year in 1991.
Beloved as much for her pluck, good nature and good deeds, there was something about Sylvia that was almost otherworldly: If she saw that something needed to be done to further community spirit, she didn’t wait for someone to come along and take care of it. Nope, she plunged right in and led by example of selflessness and unfailing goodwill.
She was truly a hell-on-wheels angel on Earth. I imagine she’s planning and building bridge bears in her special area of the firmament as we speak.
Good night, Sylvia. We loved you then; we love you now.