ALBERT SYELES HAS A GORGEOUS SPEAKING VOICE. Sitting across from him at a small table inside the Santa Monica Hotel lobby, I lean into his warm speech, compelled to listen, if only to hear the timbre of his voice. We’re meeting to transfer into my digital recorder the details of where he has been and what he has done throughout his life. Writing a profile hinges on a simple but unshakable tenet: Every person has a collection of interesting stories to tell, stories which thread together into the tale of a remarkable life. Syeles is a former Navy man and government worker who later in life decided to take on a cause. Adventure and excitement abound, right?
But Syeles is the first to downplay how exciting a life he’s lived. The former government employee is admittedly more comfortable at home drinking coffee with his wife and their cadre of cats. The couple retired to St. Augustine in 2006 and, rather than hit the social scene in the Ancient City, embarked on a three-year renovation of an elegant Victorian home near the heart of the city. They slept in a closet and made coffee on a hot plate. They enjoyed the quiet time between swinging hammers and driving drills. All was set for a life of repose in a retiree-friendly community featuring great restaurants within walking distance. There was one thing missing, however, as far as Syeles was concerned, a thing which would have ensured the bliss of a comfortable retirement. They were missing a performing arts center.
Syeles volunteered to run the St. Augustine Celtic Music & Heritage Festival in downtown St. Augustine, which he and a few others founded some eight years ago. The festival makes just enough money (in the last few years, at least) to cover expenses and get the next festival off the ground. The annual event takes place at Francis Field on West Castillo Drive; between its huge stage and Highland games pitch, the event really wouldn’t fit inside a performing arts center. Still, Syeles is adamant about the venue. Cue the Lloyd Dobler boombox; this just may be his dare-to-be-great moment.
I WAS BORN IN SILVER SPRINGS, MARYLAND, A SUBURB OF WASHINGTON, D.C. I lived there until I was 17 and went off to college in Pittsburgh,” Syeles says. His parents loved singing and his older sister played the piano as a child. “My father loved old, classical music. He was Irish-Hungarian and loved Hungarian folk music and nightclub music, which he would pick up on a shortwave radio from Budapest on Saturday mornings.” Syeles credits his parents for instilling a love of music in him.
His father was a metallurgist who worked for the U.S. Navy. Over his career, he helped the government secure 27 patents on materials and processes. His mother worked at the local telephone company for 35 years, starting back when telephones were connected by physically plugging a line in a hole in a board.
The young Syeles studied at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh; while there, he played clarinet in a country-Western band. “I got a degree in political science with a minor in mathematics and as soon as I graduated, I was drafted into the Army to go fight in Vietnam,” Syeles says. Upon being drafted, he scrambled over to the Navy office and said that he’d rather be on a boat than at the wrong end of a bullet. He spent two-and-a-half years seasick on three destroyers before getting out of the service and returning to Duquesne in 1973 to study philosophy, prompted perhaps because his stint in the Navy involved having his finger hover over the nuclear button.
While in the Navy, he married his wife Pat, whom he had met while an undergrad at Duquesne. Back in Pittsburgh after his tour of duty, she took a job at a law firm and he began working at the Social Security Administration. “Believe or not, working for Social Security taught me a lot about business and government. When I worked for them, they were really well run and spent a good amount of time educating managers, which I later became,” Syeles says. “Government employees have a bad reputation, but that’s all bullshit. Most of them are damn smart and are trying to do some good in a challenging environment.”
Syeles recalls with detail the good he was able to accomplish while working for the Social Security office, but that didn’t translate into a decent wage, so after a tour through an insurance company and Sikorsky Aircraft, both of which brought income boosts, he ended up working at the same telephone company where his mother had worked. He moved with the telephone company from New Haven, Connecticut to Northern Virginia, where he served as an analyst and subject matter expert for the telephone lobby. “The head lobbyists would take the congressmen and senators out all night and party and the next morning, I would present the numbers to a bloodshot, hungover batch of folks,” Syeles says.
“I spent those years practicing piano, but it wasn’t the priority. I was an accountant for 35 years and practiced that more than I did piano during that time.” Though he loves music, if he had to do it all over again, Syeles says, he would have taken the same path because he’s always been practical and needed to make a living. “Because I worked my butt off, I can now focus on running a nonprofit. We have enough now to do something we enjoy doing,” Syeles says.
I’D RATHER BE IN ST. AUGUSTINE THAN JUST ABOUT ANYWHERE ELSE IN THE WORLD,” Syeles says. After he and his wife retired, they traveled to a number of cities in the South looking for a place to settle down. “We worked our way down from Wilmington, North Carolina to Key West, and when we got to St. Augustine in 2005, we felt like we’d found our mecca.” They bought a house within three days of visiting the area. “I’ve had two loves at first sight: my wife and St. Augustine.”
After the restoration of their house was complete, Syeles found time to read every book and article on the history of
St. Augustine that he could get his hands on. “I even read the geology books on the area, just really trying to learn everything I could about it,” Syeles says.
As St. Augustine’s 450th anniversary approached, Syeles went to a city meeting to learn a bit more. “I raised my hand and said, ‘I’m a musician and I can help set up music stands or whatever. Can you tell me who is in charge of the music?’ and [then-] Mayor George Gardner said that since I was the first to ask, I was in charge of music.”
After learning there were nearly 45 festivals in St. Augustine every year, Syeles embarked upon research to find where a convenient gap in entertainment existed. “This is how we started putting on the St. Augustine Celtic Music & Heritage Festival. I figured out that you could get money from the St. Johns County Tourism Development Council if you held a festival during a lull in the tourist season,” Syeles says.
A year later, in 2012, Syeles and his team held Romanza Week, which became the Romanza Festivale of the Arts the next year, a 10-day celebration of arts and music. For the Romanza Festivale, a cohort of St. Augustine’s arts and music organizations put on events in the area under one umbrella. The organizations pay $100 in annual fees to join, which are refunded if they use the Romanza logo in an ad to promote the festival. The event is so successful that they’ve started running out of space.
“There are all of these organizations putting on great events throughout the city and the event is growing every year, but there are no new venues added to the festival. There is a crisis of available space,” Syeles says.
Right now, there are only a few performance spaces in the city. You can use the Flagler College auditorium, which seats about 775, and the next available space is the Limelight Theatre, which seats 125,” Syeles points out. “Between 775 and 125, there is nothing to book. The St. Augustine Orchestra, the First Coast Opera Company and a number of dance companies currently have no home.”
Through research, Syeles learned that in 2010, the Tourist Development Council paid an outside consultant to do a destination marketing plan; its findings included a recommendation to build a performing arts center as a strategic opportunity to enhance local arts and culture. That was all that Syeles needed to know to start his mission. He has fundraisers and architects lined up and ready to go, if the county is willing to pull the trigger.
In October 2017, the St. Johns County Tourist Development Council approved a feasibility study to measure the possibility of building a performing arts center. “I know what they are going to find, because I’ve done the work. My only criteria is that it’s done within three miles of the city’s center,” Syeles says. “I’m going to do this. If it happens before I die, I’ll be happy. If it happens next year, I’ll be very, very happy.”
Increasingly animated, Syeles pounds the table to emphasize the progress made thus far on turning the dream into reality. The folks at the table next to us glance in our direction. For a man who says he prefers to be more reclusive, he’s starting to draw some serious attention—and he’s fine with that.
In spite of his obvious excitement, Syeles is a government man through and through—his captivating voice remains even, though slightly louder than when we first began to talk. He understands that moving forward takes patience and time.
“I’m getting so much satisfaction from what we’ve accomplished already and, really, I am just having fun trying to see this through.”