AMES, Iowa — Facing the ups and downs of life with a positive attitude is often easier said than done. From abuse and poverty to helping save lives through scientific research, 71-year-old Ames resident Sylvia Carter is a remarkable woman.
Life can take you for quite a ride. “I think that it was overwhelming and it never gets worse than overwhelming. I think that is the secret,” said Carter, who has taken life’s bumpy ride with a smile. Carter said, “We definitely were in severe poverty but we never felt bad.”
Graduating from Iowa State University in 1971 with a degree in bacteriology and a minor in chemistry, she moved to Canada with a man she thought was the love of her life. “I did some cancer research and I also did biological research and testing,” said Carter. As exhilarating as that was, Carter’s relationship became abusive and she was forced to go back to Iowa with three small children. “It was an unlivable situation. Even though he was brilliant, he had personality disorder. I was happy to get out with my life,” said Carter.
A single parent on her own and looking for work, Carter fell on rough times but she remained positive. “There were times I didn’t have a job and so I worked at daycare for $6 an hour. There were quite a few years where my income was around $6,000 a year,” Carter said.
So she inspired her children to find happiness in life’s simple pleasures. Carter said, “We had big gardens and the kids all helped with the garden. We’d eat peas and okra.” Carter added three more kids but also more abuse followed. She said, “To overcome being in a very abusive situation without counseling or therapy made me say ‘Thank you Lord.'”
She kept the family strong through hard work. “My first house I bought was in the little town of Randall for $5,000 and almost every window was broken. We got really good at fixing windows,” said Carter.
Growing up, Carter’s daughter Rita Gartin saw what her mother lacked in wealth she made up for in determination and love. “Even when mom was going through hard times, her focus wasn’t on the hard times, it was on family and taking care of us,” Gartin said.
In 1994, Carter caught on with her passion as a diagnostic microbiologist and lab technician at Iowa State University. “We diagnosed the bacteria pathogens of farm animals, zoo animals, pets large, small, anything that came in the door,” Carter said.
During her 23 years at ISU, she was involved in a vaccine breakthrough in rhinitis, a disease that can be deadly in pigs. “It would cause a respiratory disease of pigs and they would fall over dead. They had never developed that vaccine ever,” said Carter.
Carter’s never-give-up attitude inspired her six children to all strive for more, no matter their situation. “Often times you get the strength from failing to get back up and come back stronger,” said Gartin, who went on to open up her own business, Pure Bridal, in Ames. “Looking back I’m just how do I have this bridal shop with over 800 wedding gowns over $1 million worth of inventory?”
Now retired, Carter remains on the run with 14 grandchildren and hopes to inspire them to chase a life of laughter. It’s a life that isn’t measured by wealth but a remarkable amount of courage and taking life’s biggest blows with a joyful resilience. Carter said, “I think having faith in God and knowing that the best things in life are free.”