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In the Loop
Friends and Giving : Feb 21, 2018

A modest voice and a generous heart

SOM parent finds a passion for giving back

By Brandon McKinley

Sally Ryden has been singing most of her life, but she hardly considers herself a vocalist.

Growing up in a white-collar suburb of Detroit, she first started singing in the junior choir at her church.

Ryden said the choir was huge, made up of students between 3rd and 8th grade. Mr. McDonald, the choir director, used to make them perform an Easter production that included singing Stabat Mater by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi.

“When I think about what he had us doing, I’m stunned,” Ryden said.

But all her years in junior choir didn’t really teach her any true vocal techniques. It wasn’t until she met Wendy and Tony Offerle at her church in Gainesville that Ryden began taking vocal lessons.

She was one of only two adults in Wendy Offerle’s studio full of children. Her 3 years of lessons taught her a variety of vocal techniques, but she never really took her singing talents outside of church.

Ryden spent most of her professional career in a windowless office.

She was a pathologist—an expert in the causes and effects of diseases—and served many years at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and the North Florida Regional Medical Center in Gainesville.

When it was time for her to retire, Ryden wanted two things in her life: to feel useful and to give back.

After having to care for her elderly parents who suffered long-term illnesses, she decided she wanted to work with children. 

“I want to make sure my contributions went to something meaningful and local,” Ryden said.

She volunteered at Duval Elementary School for a number of years and now volunteers at Kimball Wiles Elementary School, where she helps outs in a class to teach and mentor students.

But more than the classroom, Ryden’s favorite place to be is outside. She is a bit of a natural history nerd and would happily be your tour guide on a visit to Paynes Prairie. She is even a certified Florida Master Naturalist.

Since 2010, Ryden has been volunteering at the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve in Ponte Vedra, Florida. She volunteers all year long, but in the summers she assists with camps geared for children ages 4 to 6, teaching them about fish, reptiles, mammals and the environment.

“They really need a grandma there,” she said. “It’s a riot.”

Ryden’s lifelong dedication to science—both in the hospital and the outdoors—has not taken away from her love of music and the arts.

“Just because I love science doesn’t mean I don’t love humanities,” she said.

She shares this enthusiasm with her daughter, Emily Bell, who graduated from the University of Florida School of Music with her Ph.D. in music history and musicology.

Bell is a singer like her mom, though Ryden said she got her voice from her dad.

She always had a loud speaking voice, Ryden said. In the school plays, most of the students would mumble half-remembered lines to the floor, but Bell could always be heard loud and clear. Yet her singing voice lacked the same impressive volume.

When Bell was in high school, she started taking lessons with a former School of Music faculty member named Linda DeForia. One day, Ryden walked in on one of their lessons and could not believe the high volume Bell was now singing with.

“I thought, ‘Wow, this kid’s really got it,’” Ryden said.

The School of Music has played an important role in Ryden’s and her daughter’s life, and her friendship with Associate Professor Tony Offerle and his wife Wendy Offerle inspired her to support the school.

Among Ryden’s generosity was an endowed scholarship named in dedication to her daughter, which includes awards for music students to travel and conduct research.

“Some people think music is just fun and games,” Ryden said. “If you want to do music, it’s just as hard as math and engineering.”

Ryden said philanthropy makes you feel better, and she has a strong feeling about the School of Music.

“It’s such an up-and-coming school,” she said. “It’s one of Gainesville’s shining lights, and everybody in the community benefits from it.”

Ryden still sings in the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church choir in Gainesville and enjoys the company of the School of Music students that sing with her. She said they add a notch of professionalism to the choir and are perfect candidates for solo parts.

She is still modest about her singing ability, but that doesn’t stop her.

“I’m probably going to get an old lady voice, but what the heck,” she said.