Remembering the life of Yvonne Sill
It is with great sadness and deep sorrow that I announce to the running community the passing of Yvonne Marie O’Connor Sill on Sept. 14. Yvonne was the third of four children born to Neil and Yvonne O’Connor of Wallkill.
Yvonne was born in 1946 and grew up in a happy, joyous, Irish family, in what in the post-war years was a small and tight knit hamlet. Her family and her community would become the cornerstone of the values by which she lived her life.
Her parents would open their home to all. Neighbors, co-workers, parish priests and the neighborhood kids were always welcome in the O’Connor household.
The family rule for dinner, when they had guests, was “FHO,” meaning family hold off as the guests would be served first. Mr. O’Connor was a big hearted vocational instructor at the Wallkill Correctional Facility. He taught prisoners vocational skills so they could become employed after serving their sentences.
In stories told about the prisoners, you could tell he respected them as people. Mr. O’Connor’s respect and service to people, even those who had hit rock bottom, did not go unnoticed by his children. Yvonne’s mother “Eve” shared her husbands belief in the dignity of all people.
Yvonne’s home was near Wallkill High. The Wallkill School District was spread out, and in an era when not all households had a car, the O’Connor home became a gathering place for many of Yvonne’s classmates waiting for after school activities like sports, plays and dances.
Remember the old TV commercial that would ask, “Do you know where your children are?” Neil and Eve would joke, “yes and everybody else’s too.”
Yvonne attended Wallkill High from 1960 to 1964. Her older brother, John, had been a “3 sport star” as he excelled in football, basketball and track. Her dad was an avid Dodgers and Giants fan and enjoyed golf. After John went off to college, Yvonne would attend games with her dad and play golf with him.
In “pick-up” games in the neighborhood, Yvonne would always get picked for teams; often ahead of some of the boys. She shared her brother’s athletic talent. In an era of limited sports for women, Yvonne would go on to play basketball and volleyball in high school and at Oneonta State.
Yvonne would often remark that she loved growing up in a small community and going to a small school. She said at Wallkill you could do anything you wanted to. You could play sports, be the lead in the school play, sing in the school choir and be a cheerleader.
She did all those things and was even the team manager for the baseball team.
After college, Yvonne got a job as a teacher at George Washington Elementary School in Kingston. She would teach in Room 109 for 38 years. Her first six years in 2nd grade and the next 32 as a beloved 1st grade teacher.
She was the longest serving teacher in GW’s history. Her love of music, theater, reading and sports made her classroom fun, lively and active. Her family bred values of respect for all and service made her a perfect teacher for a diverse community like Kingston.
Early in her career, Yvonne put on a first grade play. Her first play was just her class in paper costumes. In collaboration with Betty Corrado, the other first grade teachers, music teacher, and art teacher this play grew to include all the first graders in the school.
They even had a costume and prop room. The 1st grade play was an original production in which the students would learn over 30 songs and many speaking lines. They put on a show for the school during the day and one for the parents and the community at night.
They rehearsed all spring and it was a wonderful tool for language arts education. The kids got their turn to be in the limelight and to shine. Ask nearly any GW student about the 1st grade play and be prepared for a huge smile and sparkling eyes.
After her retirement in 2006, Mrs. Sill amazed her former students by not only remembering their names, but also their roles in the play. George Washington is the only elementary school in the district with a full stage and auditorium.
In 2006, the school district honored Yvonne by dedicating the stage in her name. It will forever be the Yvonne O’Connor Sill stage.
Elizabeth Carpinelli’s daughter, Lisa, had Yvonne as a 1st grader. Liz likes to tell the story how after the first week of school, Lisa came home excited and said “My teacher is just like Mary Poppins.”
I have been asked what made Yvonne such a good teacher. It obviously was her combination of skills. Her background in music and theater and her commitment to teaching reading and writing. However, what made her a great teacher was her compassion.
She could look into a child’s eyes and her eyes would say I love you and you are safe with me.
She always enjoyed sports and as a camp counselor she coached camp volleyball teams. She coached her daughter’s CYO basketball team. In 1996 and 1997, Yvonne was the assistant cross-country coach at Bard College. In 1999, Kingston High was looking for a girls cross-country coach.
I recommended Mrs. Sill to Tony Badalato and he found it was a perfect fit. She coached for 10 years and in 2009 retired from coaching to spend more time with her new grandbabies and to care for her husband, Bill, who had become ill. She coached indoor track and worked every outdoor meet.
The kids on the team always knew they could go to her to get their times, a hug and support. In 2002, under her tutelage, the girls had arguably the best cross-country team in the school’s history. They went 19-5 and qualified two members to the state championships.
They won the only Division Championship in the program’s history and finished 2nd to state powerhouse Warwick at the Section 9 Championships. In 2001, her indoor track team qualified six athletes to the state championships. The following year, the team would qualify seven. What made her a successful coach was her ability to observe.
She could see when someone was “off” or having trouble. She could communicate. In her first year of coaching indoor track, she was having trouble with a few senior boys. They didn’t want to listen to a new coach who was also a woman.
The team was working out at GW. Yvonne took those boys into her classroom, had them sit down in those little 1st grade chairs, and after 90 minutes of talking and listening, they came to agreement. That quartet of boys would go on to finish 3rd in the Federation Championships and 2nd in the State for the 4x200 relay.
Those boys came to understand that Coach Sill cared for them as people, not just athletes.
Yvonne became involved in local community running in 1986 when her son, Michael and daughter, Catherine started running. They were 7 and 5 yearsold. She worked the finish line of races with Tom Casey. They took pride in getting everyone’s time recorded accurately.
She worked nearly every Onteora Runners Club race for over 30 years. In 1994, she was introduced to the Shawangunk Runners Club as well. She did everything from preparing the finish line index cards to timing the race. She gathered everything needed for the post-race refreshments like slicing the bagels, putting out the fruit and stirring the soup.
She cleaned everything up and then packed up the finish line equipment as race awards were being announced. She did everything in a quiet way never attempting to gain credit or acknowledgment. She worked her last finish line on August 25 at a small fundraising event in New Paltz.
I must say writing that sentence brought tears to my eyes and a heaviness to my heart.
In conjunction with the family, the Shawangunk Runners Club is planning a memorial race in Yvonne’s honor for 2019. It will simply be called Yvonne’s Race.
The proceeds of the race will go to a fund to provide winter coats and a toy for the holidays to Kingston elementary school students. In her tenure at George Washington, she was usually the first teacher to arrive at the school and she’d watch the students enter. She noticed which kids needed winter coats.
On Christmas Eve, she drove through the city and secretly deliver packages to houses. The wrapped boxes said, “From Santa’s Helper.” Those rides were great fun as you knocked on doors and ran like heck not to be seen. The Shawangunk Runners will have at the finish line of all our races a picture of Yvonne along with her chair, clipboard and pack of index cards.
She was a wife, mother, teacher, coach, friend and volunteer. She assumed many roles and filled them all with love and compassion. Her impact on the local community can not be measured but it was immense.
She will be remembered in the heart and minds of many people. Her son summarized in her obituary:
“Teacher, friend, beautiful soul. As a second and first grade teacher at George Washington Elementary School, Yvonne taught generations of Kingstonians to read, to tie their shoes and to be decent to one another.
“Proudly Irish, she was caring, thoughtful and never judgmental. She accepted people’s flaws, and she forgave their mistakes. Her capacity for giving to her family, to her friends, and to her community was limitless.”
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Steve Schallenkamp has been active in area running circles since 1966 as runner, race director, volunteer and coach. He is a member of the Onteora Runners Club and president of the Shawangunk Runners Club.
Yvonne Sill and daughter Catherine at the Kingston Summer Cross Country race at Twin Lakes on Aug. 18, 2018.