Sybyl Atwood was born Sybyl McPeake in rural Tennessee in 1935.
Both of Sybyl’s parents passed away before she was four years old, so she was sent to be raised by her uncle. After repeated and heated disagreements with her aunt, a “Very Victorian woman,” Sybyl ran away at the age of 12 to live with her brother, Jerry.
In the early 1950s, Sybyl met Robert Atwood, a young Christian Evangelist, while they were attending Union University in Jackson, TN. They married in 1955. So began the journey that would take Sybyl Atwood from the sleepy, small-town American South to the bustling and industrial Northern cities of Chicago and later Flint, MI.
Between Tennessee and Flint, Sybyl and Bob Atwood made Chicago their home. Sybyl worked as a staff person and assistant to Chicago Alderman Leon Depres. Alderman Depres was an Independent Socialist in a sea of Daley Machine Democrats.
Sybyl, with her steadfast belief in social and economic justice, helped Alderman Depres — who was sometimes referred to as “The Liberal Conscience of Chicago” — battle the political and business establishment on a number of fronts: Corruption at Chicago City Hall; racist practices and segregation in housing and schools; and the need for more assistance for the city’s poor and disfranchised. Alderman Depres and by extension, Sybyl Atwood, were frequently on the losing end of 49-1 votes during City Council meetings. It made them fight harder.
In 1965, Sybyl and Bob picked up and moved to a much smaller, yet still bustling Northern city — Flint, Michigan. Bob became the new Director of the Flint Human Relations Commission. Sybyl was interviewed by a young Harriet Kenworthy and became the Director of the newly established Volunteer Bureau, a program created by the Junior League of Flint.
Until her official retirement a few months before passing away in July 2007, Sybyl worked at Resource Genesee — Linking volunteers with opportunities to serve in the community and people in need with the nonprofit and public agencies, churches, schools, business and others who might help them.
For four decades, Sybyl spent almost every day and night making connections for people and drawing like-minded individuals together to do good for Flint and the surrounding community. Along the way, Sybyl honed a deep commitment to humanity and public service and was regarded by many as the “Grand Dame” of the volunteer and human services sectors in Flint and Genesee County.
Sybyl knew everybody, and just about everything, when it came to Flint. She was Google before there was a Google. She relied on her trusty telephone, a pen, a pad of paper and her encyclopedic knowledge of Flint and its resources.
She would listen to a person tell their story, what they wanted to accomplish for themselves or their community, OR what their individual and family needs were and immediately offer suggestions on who they should intersect with or where they should go for assistance.
She spent her life talking to people, either in person or on the phone, making things happen every single day. She worked with the media to let the world know what they could do to get help and give help.
The Flint Journal’s Volunteer Here column and Holiday Wish List, Andrew Heller’s weekly Need Has A Face feature and Steve Jessmore’s photojournalism series, Sense of Community, are all great examples of Sybyl’s “success-through-collaboration” partnerships and leveraging her relationships with others.
Since 2008, we have gathered every December and have bestowed the SYBYL Award to honor people living and working in our community who exhibit the same spirit, drive, and compassion that Sybyl did for so many and for so long.