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Remembering a Beloved, Gifted and Invaluable Friend to Chattanooga

For more than a decade, Sybil McLain-Topel contributed in immeasurable ways to the creative and economic landscape of Chattanooga. As a gifted writer, she was hugely supportive of our artistic community. As a devoted Chamber of Commerce executive, she spent her days and nights consistently uplifting our regional business community. For those of us who had the honor of calling her a friend, Sybil lovingly and gracefully gave us so much of herself.  

Earlier this month, our city lost a very good friend. On Saturday, April 6, Sybil passed away, leaving behind family and friends who will miss and remember her with deep affection and appreciation.  

“I will remember that Sybil loved life, wrote brilliantly, brought art into our lives and constantly reminded us that how we communicate with each other matters,” said Charles Wood, President and CEO of Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce.  

For 10 years, Topel served as the Vice President of Marketing and Engagement for the Chamber. Her background was extensive: a writer-in-residence at Lillian E. Smith Center, an MFA graduate of Savannah College of Art and Design, a high-level marketing exec in Nashville, an international blogger based in Singapore, a UPI reporter who once interviewed Jimmy Buffet (Rumor has it she considered this the pinnacle of her career). 

For years, Topel crafted and shaped the narrative that would support countless businesses and economic ventures all while encouraging those around her to live with clarity and confidence.  

“As a friend and a Chamber Board member, it was fun to have a front-row seat to see the deep and lasting impact she had on the Chamber and our community,” said Roy Vaughn, Senior Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee. “Chattanooga was already ‘on the map’ but Sybil helped plant a big red pin on it worldwide for our economic development. She was a difference maker for so many professionally and personally.” 

Locally, she served as a board member for ArtsBuild, Pop-Up Project and CO.LAB and was an active member of Rotary International. 

“Over the course of her career, she and the teams she worked with won a number of awards in the creative fields. But that didn’t matter to her at all,” her obituary said. “She found great pleasure in helping people working alongside her identify skills they wanted to learn and help them advance in their work. She was a quiet and fierce advocate for equal pay while also encouraging people to take the next steps to acquire the skills they would need to advance. Her door was always open with a listening ear.” 

Across Chattanooga, friends paid tribute.  

“Sybil always embraced Chattanooga’s story and looked for so many different ways to tell it to the world. I’ll always remember how proud she was of Chattanooga being named the Chamber of the Year in 2017 as a culmination of all the hard work the entire team at the Chamber put in – and how many of those stories she helped shape made such a tangible impact!” said Mickey Cloud, executive director of The Sasha Group.  

“It was a blessing to have a respected colleague who was also a trusted friend,” said Sandra Mitchell, retired Chamber executive. “Sybil and I shared many of life’s ups and downs.  We had a friendship that went far beyond our Chamber roles.  She was a huge comfort to me when my husband passed away from cancer in 2018, and it was an honor to be there for her as she navigated her cancer journey.  I will remember how brave she was and how hard she fought without losing her playful sense of humor.  Most of all, I will remember her beautiful smile, artistic abilities and words of encouragement throughout the years.” 

Sybil is survived by her husband Christopher Topel, her mother Mollie R. Vannoy, her son Alexander M. Douthat, her son; Caroline Douthat, daughter-in-law; Bill McLain, brother; and dozens of cousins, aunts, and uncles.

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