Sylvia Cherong Fein, 107, a brilliant artist, bridge player, World War II American Red Cross volunteer, clothing manufacturer's manager and much-honored philanthropic fundraiser died Dec. 3 at home of natural causes.
Sylvia lived in several local neighborhoods throughout her lifetime, including Mt. Airy, Lafayette Hill, West Oak Lane and Logan.
A nephew, Steven Fein, told us last week, “One cannot think of Sylvia other than with a smile. She was loving, and caring and listened at all times. She just was so special.”
She was also very intelligent, he said – a fact which was immediately apparent to anyone who played bridge with her.
“As a seventh-level bridge master, I play constantly against national and world champions or the best,” Steven said. “One day, I played with Sylvia in the group that she played with at least twice a week. This was a fundamental bridge group. Sylvia shined. She made a bid at one point that was brilliant. I did not even catch it.”
She was also a wonderful artist, said Steven, who has 15 of her paintings hanging in the conference room of his Michigan manufacturing plant.
“I call it 'The Sylvia Fein Room of Love’,” he said. “We all were just lucky to love and be loved by Sylvia.”
Sheridan Hay, who is married to Michael Jacobs, another of Sylvia's nephews who also shared a birthday with her, noted a particular trip she said perfectly illustrates Sylvia’s personality.
“When my husband turned 60 and Sylvia turned 95, we took her on a week-long trip to Paris. She hadn't returned to France since after World War II,” she said. “I knew it would be a special trip when the airline steward, upon hearing it was Sylvia's 95th birthday, brought her a large bottle of champagne to celebrate. Even at 95, Sylvia cast a spell on people.”
It happened again, Hay said, when Michael arranged a private tour of the Musee d'Orsay for his aunt, who loved art and painting. The curator was so charmed by Sylvia’s interest and knowledge, she said, that the hour-long tour stretched to almost two hours.
“I remember a dinner with the illuminated Eiffel Tower glittering through the restaurant window, as we listened to Sylvia describe Paris in the 1940s, which was scarred by war,” Hay said. “The next day, as we passed the Eiffel Tower, Parisian firemen were practicing their rappelling techniques beneath the tower. When they saw Sylvia, they all ran to stand around her for a photograph of Sylvia laughing with her arms open, surrounded by handsome, young Frenchmen!”
Sylvia was born on June 14, 1916, in Malden, Massachusetts, the second of five daughters of Isaac and Bertha Cherong, both immigrants to the U.S. from Kyiv, which was then part of the Russian Empire and is now the capital of Ukraine. The family moved to Philadelphia when Sylvia was a child. She graduated from Simon Gratz High School in 1934.
Throughout a long and varied career, Sylvia worked as a legal secretary for a business association and as an independent bookkeeper and accountant for many clients. She also managed a firm of more than 500 employees that manufactured women’s clothing in North Philadelphia.
According to family members, Sylvia loved to travel and in 1948 embarked on a life-changing trip to several European countries. It was after visiting Italy that Sylvia decided to pursue her lifelong passion for drawing and painting. She began to formally study art and would paint and draw for the rest of her life.
Sylvia took art classes at The Plastic Club in Philadelphia, where she remained a member for more than 50 years. Exhibitions of her paintings, drawings and watercolors were held numerous times. Her artwork still fills the walls of the homes of many friends and family members. Even during the last months of her life, Sylvia continued to paint and draw.
For her entire adult life, Sylvia volunteered and raised money for philanthropic causes. First as a nurse’s aide for the Red Cross at a local hospital during WWII and, for more than 70 years, Sylvia raised money for the City of Hope, a research hospital which is located outside of Los Angeles, California – and received national recognition for that service. She was active in Democratic politics and remained a bridge player until her final years.
According to Judith Temple, the daughter of Fein's now-98-year-old sister, Sara Goldberg, “Sylvia was a force in all our cousins' lives and a tremendous support for her sisters as we grew up. Her influence on me personally lives with me daily – her sense of family connection, her love of art and beauty and her continuous desire to learn.
“She was intelligent, loving, fair, open-hearted, self-confident, wise, full of light and joy, simply just a wonderful person in so many ways,” Judith said. “It was a pleasure and privilege to be loved by her and be part of her journey.”
A first marriage for Sylvia ended in divorce. At a New Year’s Eve party, when Sylvia was almost 60, she met Joseph Fein, whose wife had died. Their happy, loving marriage lasted 34 years. Joe died at age 98 in 2009.
Local TV news crews did feature stories on Sylvia's 105th birthday celebration in 2021.
Sylvia is survived by her sister, Sara C. Goldberg of Philadelphia, and by five nieces and nephews — Steven Fine, Judith Temple, Patrice Garver, Michael Jacobs and Amy Errett. She is also survived by her late husband’s son, Maier Fein, his two sons and their families as well as countless friends, neighbors and admirers.
Len Lear can be reached at email@example.com