A few cities seem to flourish because a single dominant personality assumes the fabric and fortunes of those places and carries them, almost alone, to a new level.
That’s pretty much what Sylvia Henkin, the Iowa-born daughter of Russian and Polish immigrants, did for Sioux Falls over more than five decades — a time, folks agree, when a small prairie town grew into a regional powerhouse that today seems to be on everyone’s list of best places to live.
While countless people have contributed to the Sioux Falls success story, no one did more to fuel that renaissance than Sylvia Ruth Wolff Henkin.
Blunt but crafty, wise-cracking but deeply compassionate, visionary in a practical way that still defies categorization, Sylvia, who died Monday at the age of 96, came to symbolize, over time, the very best of Sioux Falls — perpetually optimistic, nimble, generous and just offbeat enough to be fun.
More than anything, Sylvia, like her adopted home, had moxie.
“Not many communities have someone who captures its spirit like Sylvia did for Sioux Falls,” Larry Fuller, former publisher of the Argus Leader and one of her closest friends, said. “There has never been anyone like her, before or after.”
But pressed to explain her uniqueness, even her closest friends struggled to find the right words.
“How can you hold a moonbeam in your hand?” said Monsignor Jim Doyle, who first met Sylvia when she moved to Sioux Falls after marrying Mort Henkin in 1944. “Trying to describe Sylvia — it’s impossible.
“But if she were right here right now,” Doyle continued, waving his hand casually through the air in the downtown coffee shop where he spoke recently. “Well, you’d just know it. People were just drawn to her. She wouldn’t, she couldn’t be ignored.”
While Sylvia’s early family life in Sheldon, Iowa, might have hinted at later achievement, few things about the striking, wide-eyed newlywed who arrived in the “big city” in 1944 suggested she was destined to earn the moniker, “The Grand Dame of Sioux Falls.”
Her husband, Mort Henkin, had been one of Sioux Falls’ most eligible bachelors — handsome, whip smart, creative, not to mention the only son of Joseph Henkin, owner and president of KSOO and KELO radio.
Even as she set up housekeeping and raised three children, eventually moving into the Craftsman on the west side of McKennan Park that was to be her home for half a century, Sylvia was drawn into the family business.
Initially, she just took dictation for Mort’s correspondence and accompanied him on out-of-town broadcasting meetings. Later, revealing a natural talent for business and ability to get along with almost anyone, Sylvia found herself involved in high-stakes negotiations with government regulators.
When the family launched KSOO-TV (later KSFY) in 1960, she began co-hosting “Party Line,” an entertainment and talk show that introduced her to a broad new audience.
Such experiences helped prepare Sylvia for the day Mort died in 1974 after a short fight with cancer. Sylvia was a widow at 52.
While over its history Sioux Falls has been fortunate to have strong, accomplished women who led initiatives and championed public causes, its core leadership had been overwhelmingly male.
“Women over a certain age often just feel invisible, and that was certainly the case in Sioux Falls,” said Shirley Halleen, who moved to the city in 1973. She and Sylvia quickly became friends.
“There’s a difference between assertive and aggressive, and Sylvia was never aggressive,” Halleen recalled. “She felt that if you’re curious and a risk taker, heck, you can do almost anything.”
Sylvia discovered she was good at running KSOO – and all that came with that in Sioux Falls’ tight-knit business community.
“She could charm the pants off anyone,” remembered Evan Nolte, who moved here in 1979 to become president of the Sioux Falls Area Chamber of Commerce — a job he held for 37 years. “I can’t imagine what Sioux Falls would have been like without her.”
Among Sylvia’s seemingly endless list of civic leadership positions, Nolte notes proudly, was the distinction of being the first woman to chair the Chamber board, in 1984.
Sylvia, as it turned out, was first at a lot of things.
But Nolte pointed out, and others agree, that Sylvia consistently resisted the notion that she was breaking a glass ceiling for other women.
She believed fervently that with hard work, intelligence and compassion — spiced with a good dose of humor – anyone could move mountains.
“At a time when women were to be seen and not heard, Sylvia was always heard and seen,” said longtime friend Ted Muenster, former head of the University of South Dakota Foundation. “She could command a room better than anyone I’ve ever seen — man or woman.”
Mary Olinger, a friend, agreed: Sylvia “came across like a celebrity, a star, even though she didn’t think of herself that way….She was and is an icon in this town – but definitely not because she was a woman.”
You didn’t have to know Sylvia long before she’d reveal that life, in important ways, really began when Mort died.
Notwithstanding the three children she treasured, life with Mort was hard. He could be overbearing, demanding and self-centered. With his death, Sylvia told many, “the lid on the pot came off.”
All that really meant, close friends and family say, is that she could finally be herself — confident, funny and creative, with a profound and lasting sense of right and wrong.
And as she found her rhythm as a business leader, she gradually stepped into an even higher profile as someone who could get things – sometimes remarkable things -done.
And a lot needed to get done, recalled Fuller, who arrived in Sioux Falls as Argus Leader publisher in 1977.
“The town didn’t feel good about itself,” Fuller said. Downtown was on the skids. What is Falls Park today was trash-strewn, a haven for vagrants, not tourists. The economy was stagnant.
The city, Fuller and others say, was in desperate need of energy — something to inspire civic pride.
The way Sylvia engineered the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in 1981 is representative of how she led. Having witnessed New York City’s version, she felt Sioux Falls needed one too. But as usual, with Sylvia, there was a much bigger goal.
“She just brought people together,” said Olinger, longtime CEO of the Make a Wish Foundation. “She would get an idea, call a bunch of people and say, ‘Come on over to the house for a cookie and a drink.’
“That’s how a lot of great ideas got going — in Sylvia’s kitchen,” Olinger remembered.
Nolte, as a longtime city leader, saw it too: “She just had an incredible talent for spotting an opportunity to make the city better.”
While her famous chocolate chip cookies and a belt of scotch might have been the lubricant that moved big ideas to concrete plans, it was Sylvia’s unique leadership style that turned them into reality.
First, Olinger said, Sylvia “didn’t do things by the book. And she always did it for the right reasons, because it was the right thing to do. Then she had a great talent for recruiting the right people to get it done.”
Fuller agreed: “She was an amazing delegator. And sometimes, speaking from experience, you didn’t know you were being delegated to.”
Those who knew her best talk fondly of the strong egalitarian streak that shaped all she did.
This daughter of immigrants saw hard work and integrity — the American dream — pay off in her own family back in Sheldon. And while she was comfortable among those with great wealth and social status, she seemed to like everyone she met.
“I don’t recall anyone,” Fuller said, “who didn’t like Sylvia.”
Well-dressed and flamboyant for effect, not a hair out of place, smiling broadly as if she alone were in on the joke, Sylvia remained a dynamic presence around town well into her 90s.
Everyone who knew her remembers her flair for working with people of all ages, genders — and backgrounds — with sincere fondness.
They knew the truth: Her real love was for this city. And this city for her.
Randell Beck is a former publisher and editor of the Argus Leader.