Sylvia Cherong Fein, 107, of Philadelphia, longtime matriarch, inspiring mentor, and artist, died Sunday, Dec. 3, of age-associated decline at her home in Center City.
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Born in 1916, Mrs. Fein lived through two World Wars, the Great Depression, the civil rights and women’s movements, several technology revolutions, and countless other developments. During that century and then some, she also helped support her parents and four sisters in all sorts of ways, became an accomplished painter, and inspired her family with selfless gestures that continue to amaze them.
One of her great-nephews became an artist because of her. A nephew named a conference room at his manufacturing plant the Sylvia Fein Room of Love and adorned it with a dozen of her paintings.
She shared her love of the theater, travel, and adventure, and was “like a second mother” to many of her younger relatives. “When people asked me most of my life what I want to do or be,” said great-nephew Peter Ferioli, “it was to be like Sylvia.”
Mrs. Fein was especially close to her 98-year-old sister, Sara Goldberg, and they spent much of the last few decades dining together, visiting with family, and most recently sharing a home in Center City. “It was a true love story between two sisters who devoted their lives to each other,” said Goldberg’s daughter, Judith Temple. “She showed us how to live a life with integrity, loyalty, and strong family connections. In Sylvia’s world, friends became family, and family became friends.”
Determined to help provide during the Great Depression in the 1930s, Mrs. Fein embarked on a long career that included jobs as a legal secretary, bookkeeper, accountant, and manager of a women’s clothing manufacturer in North Philadelphia. “She took it upon herself to be a responsible person,” said her nephew Michael Jacobs. “She was her own person and an inspiration to the other women in the family.”
Her life changed in 1948 when she traveled to Italy and was mesmerized by the great works of art she encountered. She began sketching, painting, and studying the nuances of the craft when she returned to Philadelphia, and eventually joined the Plastic Club and became its oldest member.
“I’m very proud of the Plastic Club,” she said in a 2023 video interview. A colleague at the club said in a tribute: “I’m glad I had the chance to meet and work with Sylvia. She was patient with us, and it was a real treat for me.”
Mrs. Fein’s artwork features still life, flowers, and landscapes, and she painted most often in watercolors and oils. She also dabbled in pastels, acrylics, and other media, and exhibited at the Plastic Club and elsewhere in Philadelphia. She sold more than a dozen paintings recently, she said in October, and many others are on display by family and friends.
She volunteered as a Red Cross nurse’s aide during World War II and raised so much money over the years for the City of Hope medical center in California that she received an award in 1983 for her fundraising prowess. “She was a role model of a nurturing woman who was exceptionally creative, strong, and caring,” said her niece Patrice Garver.
The second of five daughters of Russian immigrants, Sylvia Cherong was born June 14, 1916, in Malden, Mass. She moved with her family to Philadelphia when she was young and graduated from Simon Gratz High School in 1934.
She married John Wohlman, and they divorced later. She met widower Joseph Fein at a New Year’s Eve party, and they married in 1975. He died in 2009.
Mrs. Fein was an avid reader, impressive bridge player, and active Democrat. She lived in Logan, West Oak Lane, and Northwest Philadelphia, and she and her husband dined often at the Square on Square restaurant on Chestnut Street.
Her family celebrated her 100th birthday in 2016 with a party of more than 100 people, and local TV news teams covered her 105th birthday in 2021. “Sylvia was exceedingly bright,” said her nephew Steven Fine. “She was always loving, caring, and listening.”
One of her great-nephews said: “When we see a flower, a piece of fruit, the sunset, any beautiful image, we will see it through Sylvia’s eyes.”
» READ MORE: Here is a look at her collection
In addition to her sister, nieces, nephews, and great-nephews, Mrs. Fein is survived by other relatives. Three sisters died earlier.
Services were held Sunday, Dec. 10.
Donations in her name may be made to City of Hope, 1500 E. Duarte Rd., Duarte, Calif., 91010, and Do Gooders Philadelphia, Box 727, Conshohocken, Pa., 19428.