This article originally ran in the Winter 2020 issue of IMPACT Newsmagazine for Dental Depot.
Sylvia Pollard-Driggins, Internationally recognized humanitarian, entrusts her smile to Dental Depot
Sylvia Pollard-Driggins is known for many things; she’s an accomplished singer, author, composer and humanitarian. Her contributions to improving the lives of children, especially those with special needs or those who come from troubled homes, have been recognized at a local, state and even international level. Driggins was the first Miss Black Oklahoma, as well as the recipient of the first Oklahoma Centennial Humanitarian Award. Her awards number in the dozens, recognition for the tireless work she’s poured into better the lives of those around her for more than fifty years. Driggins is also a longtime patient of Dental Depot, but there’s more to her story than just a beautiful smile.
Raised with four siblings by her widowed father in Spencer, Oklahoma, Driggins never had the chance to know her mother, who passed when Driggins was two. Her father was a community-minded man and a WWII veteran who did his best to raise his five children and give back to his neighbors. As the eldest daughter, it fell to her to manage the household, all the while trying to understand what it meant to be a young woman.
“I worked as the young mother of the house; I cleaned, I cooked, I went out to the countryside and found berries for pies and turned rabbits into chicken – I was very creative,” said Driggins. “Whatever I did, I did it for the household and tried to make it wholesome.”
Then, in 1960, Driggins became the first African-American student to integrate into Star Spencer High School.
“I wasn’t afraid to integrate with people because I wanted to learn as much as I could about the world and life,” said Driggins. “At first I was afraid of life, because at times I would notice that everybody else had a mother, and I would look for my mother in stores or around town because I thought they were playing with me, and that I must have a mother somewhere. I looked for her for years growing up, and when my father finally did remarry, my second mother died in a car wreck shortly after, and they would say, ‘That girl can’t keep a mother.’”
Despite this, Driggins was determined to make her own way in the world as part of a journey to find herself. She’s been singing since the age of five, a talent she says is God-given. Music came as naturally to her as breathing and helped her to create a place for herself in the world.
She started working at the age of 14 at a laundromat where she made sixty cents an hour. With every penny she saved, she was able to attend Central State University (known as the University of Central Oklahoma today) and completed a degree in music, commuting every day to the city by bus. It was on that bus that Driggins accidentally knocked her tooth against a bar, damaging it.
“I was so afraid to go to the dentist and get it pulled. I didn’t get it pulled until after I got married and what frightened me so much was that the lady put her knee in my stomach and she just pulled the tooth. It was a moment of shock,” recalled Driggins. “When she did that, I said I’d never step foot in a dentists’ office again. It took me a long, long time to trust any dentist again because I thought that was what it was supposed to be like.”
Driggins’ marriage was as much a shock as her dental visit – what had been a fairytale wedding to the love of her life quickly turned cold. Her husband grew distant around the time of their daughter’s birth, which had endangered Driggins’ life and her unborn baby.
“I was in labor for more than three days and my family doctor, Dr. G.E. Finley – who had known my mother and called me his daughter – took it upon himself to care for me. He told me I had a 50/50 chance to survive the pregnancy and that if I was going to live, it was by my will alone,” said Driggins. “I gave birth to my daughter, Simoné, and found that I only had a quarter to my name. My husband had left me with no money and no car, so I had to call my father to come and pick me up from the hospital. My baby slept in a drawer. There were no flowers, no baby shower. But, against all odds, I knew that I had to be a role model for my daughter.”
Driggins divorced in 1972 and as a single mother, she began working in education but encountered pushback for being “too black and too creative.” Still, she persevered, determined to follow her parents’ example of helping those around her and building a sense of community.
Driggins established community choirs, musicals for children, pageants and publications – all in the name of humanitarian love. Eventually, her efforts began to be recognized and this allowed her to make even more contributions to the community. She’s been honored by governors, presidents and even by Queen Elizabeth II.
“Any accolades or honors that I’ve received – I’ve been harder on myself than anyone else. I try to use my abilities to put an arm around those who are insecure or frightened or who don’t feel like they are enough,” said Driggins. “I’ve struggled more than most, but I’ve had to because that was God’s plan for me. Because of that, the woman I am today is creative, kind and merciful. And I’ve raised my daughter that same way.”
Driggins’ daughter, Simoné, is a nurse in the Oklahoma City Public School system and is how Driggins came to know Dental Depot. Simoné has been going to Dental Depot Central OKC for years and even shows her students Smiley O’Riley’s presentation year after year to make sure that her students understand the importance of good oral hygiene.
“My daughter was Dr. Glenn’s patient first and she knew I didn’t trust dentists. I went with her and watched, but I was still too afraid to try,” Driggins said. “I was encouraged by the theme, though. Trains are a sacred part of my family’s history – my father and grandfather both worked the MKT Railroad for numerous years as train conductors.”
“When I met Dr. Glenn and his team, they were like a family and I loved them with all my heart. Mona [Wautelet] seemed like the big sister I never had and Pam [Foster] seemed like the friend I was always looking for. Dr. Glenn is like a father to me. I love him and I trust him and there aren’t very many people I trust because of the pain I’ve had to go through,” said Driggins. “I want them to know that when I walk into their office, it does frighten me, but when I look at them I know I’m going to be alright. Dr. Glenn and Mona, they give me what I need and that is reassurance and courage, and courage takes faith. So when I look at them, I feel like I’m looking at God.”
Today, Driggins continues her humanitarian efforts to pave the way for a brighter future for children while honoring her past. In memory of her parents, Charles Lloyd Pollard, Sr., and Vera Lee Black-Pollard, Driggins wears the key to her late father’s life-sized train shack and as well as a flower to mark her mother’s accomplishment as the entrepreneur behind Black’s Florist.