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Sylvia Willard

Vermont Store Owner, Drama Teacher, and Theater Company Founder
1922 – 2006

Vermonter Sylvia Willard (née Shapiro) grew up helping out in her father’s department store. As a teenager, she developed a love of drama and studied under a Middlebury College professor. After her graduation from Syracuse University, Sylvia worked as a production assistant on Broadway. After her marriage to Howard Willard, Sylvia returned home where the couple expanded her parents’ business. She also helped found a theater company and taught drama at the College of St. Joseph.

Sylvia’s father, David Shapiro, grew up in Middlebury, VT. In 1917 he opened Shapiro’s Department Store in nearby Brandon. Her mother, Katie, was raised in North Adams, MA, and it was during a visit to her family that Sylvia was born in 1922. As children, Sylvia and her sister Evelyn helped at the family’s store and played in and around the streets of Brandon.

Shapiro's Department Store
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Shapiro's Department Store, founded in Brandon, Vermont, by Sylvia Willard's father, David Shapiro.
Courtesy of the Willard Family.

Before Rutland’s Jewish community acquired its current building on Grove Street in 1927, the Shapiros and other Jewish families would rent a large room and hire a traveling rabbi to lead their High Holidays services. Each spring, Sylvia’s mother hosted a Passover seder. Later, as an adult, Sylvia joined classes and study groups at the Rutland Jewish Center.

Through the 1930s, Sylvia’s mother, encouraging her daughter’s early love of theater, transported her regularly to study drama with a professor in Middlebury. She learned to recite classical poetry and perform readings, winning scholarships and competitions.

When Sylvia was in high school her mother set up a “chance” meeting with Howard Willard, a local music store employee. Sylvia found she liked the young man and the two were soon an item, although it was some years before they would marry. First, Sylvia finished high school and continued on to Syracuse University. After graduating, she moved to New York City to work as a production assistant on Broadway.

Sylvia Willard circa 1940s
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Entrepreneur and drama teacher Sylvia Willard circa the 1940s.
Courtesy of the Willard Family

Inveterate theatergoers, Sylvia and Howard frequently traveled to shows on Broadway and summer stock performances around Vermont. She herself began directing community productions in the 1950s, and by the 1970s she and several friends had founded Actors’ Repertory Theatre. Sylvia also taught drama at the College of St. Joseph in Rutland. She died in 2006, at the age of 84.

With World War II still raging, Sylvia finally married her “Howie,” by then a soldier. When his service ended, the couple married and set up house in Manhattan. Soon after, Sylvia’s father died unexpectedly, and they returned to Brandon to help her mother run Shapiro’s. Sylvia opened a second store, Jane’s Dress Shop. She and Howard opened a third store and managed all three, while she translated her theatrical training and love of fashion into show-stopping window displays.

Article originally published in To Life! A Celebration of Vermont Jewish Women. Manchester, VT: Shire Press, 2009.

Reproduced here courtesy of Ann Zinn Buffum and Sandra Stillman Gartner, Project Directors, Davar: The Vermont Jewish Women’s History Project. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission.

Sylvia Willard
Full image
Sylvia Willard.
Courtesy of Karen Pike Photography.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Sylvia Willard, 1922 - 2006." (Viewed on January 20, 2018) <>.

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