Sylvia Safford Barber never hesitated to blaze her own trail. In the 1960s, when women comprised less than 2 percent of the United States Navy, she rose to the rank of lieutenant commander. She then earned a graduate degree from the Defense Intelligence School and, during the height of the Cold War, became an analyst focused on the Soviet Union’s military buildup in Cuba. After more than two decades of service, Barber reinvented herself as a caterer and party designer, celebrated for throwing some of the most creative fetes in Washington, D.C., with her sidekick, a theme-dressed pet duck.
Barber, 77, has lived full-time since 2006 in the Indian Beach-Sapphire Shores neighborhood near Sarasota Bay in a Tuscan-style home replete with Oriental gardens surrounding a swimming pool, and featuring a massive renovation in which Barber went through three architects before finally getting it to her liking. She is an active supporter of Selby Gardens, The Ringling and the Bishop Museum of Science and Nature.
“I was raised in Pinehurst, North Carolina, in a prosperous family. I never cooked a meal for myself or made a bed. My father, Franklin Safford, was a famous harness racing driver at a time when harness racing was enormously popular in this country. My mother, Florence McCullagh Safford, took over her first husband’s business [a car dealership] when he died at 45 of a heart attack. Her comment when she gave it to me in the early ’80s was, ‘Women’s lib 50 years ago.’
“After I graduated from the University of Miami in 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated, and it affected me deeply. I remember him saying, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.’ I thought the least I could do was give two years of service to my country. So, here I was, a sorority girl from a family in which no one had served in the military, walking in off the street and joining the Navy.
“Within a few years, I became social secretary for the admiral in charge of the Pacific Fleet based in Hawaii. I was charged with planning events, keeping the admiral’s calendar and many other things. I know in this age of ‘Me Too,’ people wonder what it must have been like, being a young woman surrounded by so many powerful men. But the admirals were like parents. If a lesser officer got out of line with a remark, I knew I could shut him down with just a stare because the men knew I worked for a four-star admiral who could end their careers.
“Which is not to say we did not face discrimination. It took a Supreme Court decision in 1974 before most women in the service could share their health care and other benefits with their civilian male spouses. My husband, Max, and I had to make a choice between having children and me remaining in the service, because at the time women in the Navy were not allowed to have children and stay on active duty. The paths to higher ranks were also much narrower for women than they are today. But we did those jobs so well that more opportunities opened for us. I was proud to be a pioneer.
“I was 41 when I retired from the Navy after 21 years. I loved to entertain, so I became a party designer and caterer. I still love hosting parties. I treat a table as if it were a stage. At the end of the dinner, nobody gets up. I have the dessert already prepared on trays and pass it out. I take care of the dishes. I don’t want guests picking up plates and I certainly don’t want them cluttering my kitchen!
“When my husband died 19 years ago of prostate cancer, I consoled myself with the line from the old Nat King Cole song: ‘Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again.’ I decided I would build a house just for me, one that I could stay in as I got older. So I took this two-bedroom, two-bath ranch built in the 1970s and more than doubled its size. I fired two architects who could not see what I wanted. It’s more than home for me. It’s a reflection of my life and it suits me perfectly.”