Sylvia Straw Mitzelfelt
1907 - 1979
Sylvia Straw Mitzelfelt, the oldest of five children, was born to Estelle Murphy and Walter Edmond Straw in Lake Charles, Louisiana, on June 23, 1907. Her father graduated from Emmanuel Missionary College, now Andrews University, in 1910, three years after she was born. As a consequence, Sylvia's early years were spent in a number of places as her father pursued a career as a teacher, builder, academy principal, pastor, administrator, and missionary to Africa, where he was the first president of the Zambesi Union.
In the decade following their return from Africa in 1924, the family moved several times, living in Colorado, Texas, Indiana, and Tennessee before settling in Berrien Springs, Michigan, in 1933, where her father taught in the theology department at Emmanuel Missionary College for the next 15 years. He was an accomplished cornet player and early in his career, when teaching or serving as principal, had always started a band program at each school.
Sylvia and a brother, Leland, would be active in music throughout their lives. Their musical talent came not only from their father's side of the family but from their mother as well. A number of persons in their mother's family were poets, taking after her mother, Rose, who was a natural poet. Also, an innate singing and keyboard ability existed in that side of the family.
Sylvia began piano study at an early age. She completed a piano program under Clarence Dortch at Southwestern Junior College and then briefly attended EMC, where she studied French, building on her exposure to that language when the family had lived in Africa. During her time at SJC, she had met Harold Mitzelfelt, a gifted musician, and, in 1930 they married while he was attending Union College and completing a four-year program in music.
Their first child, Patricia, was born the following year. Sylvia was a devoted mother who spent her time and energy raising four children during their formative years. During those years she taught piano and organ at home or at the schools where her husband taught. She especially enjoyed teaching adult beginners and was a frequent accompanist for groups and soloists.
One of Sylvias's gifts as a music teacher was providing unstinting support and encouragement to her students. Her love of the fine arts was contagious and a source of inspiration to them. She was always available to accompany, and coach if needed, soloists or groups of students. In addition to her skill as a keyboard player, she had a fine voice and loved to sing and participate in vocal ensembles.
Late in life, Sylvia was able to complete a music degree at Madison College. This was a meaningful accomplishment for her and her family, one delayed because of her commitments to her children and husband and her responsibilities as a teacher and accompanist. Her daughter, Patricia, would later observe that "she encouraged us as children in our musical pursuits and was a good mentor to us. She was a dedicated Christian who knew what she believed and looked forward to being a part of the heavenly kingdom. Her love for us and for her grandchildren was obvious and we, in turn, loved her."
All of her children have spent their lives as active musicians, her daughter Patricia pursuing music as a career, becoming a noted college band director in SDA colleges. While Richard, Sylvia, and Vincent have had careers in other professions, music has also been an important part of their lives. Vincent, a physician, established the well-known Mitzelfelt Chorale in Southern California, now known as the Camerata of Los Angeles.
The Mitzelfelts were living in Eljay, Georgia, when Harold died on April 24, 1974, following a heart attack. Sylvia was living in Berrien Springs, Michigan, when she died on December 21, 1979, at age 72. They are both buried in the SDA Church Cemetry in Tails Creek, Georgia.
Source: Interview with Patricia Mitzelfelt Silver, 2004.