Edward S. Skillin, 1904-2000

Edward S. Skillin, long-time editor and publisher of Commonweal, died on August 14 of complications resulting from a stroke he had suffered in May. He was ninety-six and had remained active until his illness, reading galleys for the magazine through its June 2000 issues. He is survived by his wife of fifty-five years, the former Jane Edwards, and by five children, three foster children, and nine grandchildren.

For those of us privileged to work with Edward on the Commonweal staff, he will always remain a man of uncommon faith, intelligence, stamina, and kindness. As Peter Steinfels remarked on the occasion of Edward’s ninetieth birthday, "there was some secret formula of daily Mass, weekly golf, Benedictine stability, bicycle riding, and commuting on the PATH [train from his home in New Jersey] that enabled him not only to keep the wolf from the door of Commonweal, but to act, in good Franciscan fashion, as though Brother Wolf were just another friend of the family."

Edward Skillin was born in New York City on January 23, 1904, attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Williams College in 1925. The same year he applied for work at The Commonweal, as it was known then, because, he said, "I felt it was the most intelligent expression of Catholicism." But there was no position open at the time, so Edward worked for the publishing firm of Henry Holt for seven years, during which period he earned a master’s degree in political science from Columbia University and began volunteering at The Commonweal. In 1934 he joined the magazine’s staff, under the tutelage of Managing Editor George N. Shuster. In a section of unsigned editorials titled "Week by Week," Shuster would arrange the reports of younger staff members in order of precedence for their content and writing style. Edward loved the competition and said that it taught him to write concisely.

In 1938, following a split among the magazine’s editors over support for Franco in the Spanish Civil War, Edward and Philip Burnham-who took a neutral position on the war-assumed co-editorship of The Commonweal, and promptly published a landmark editorial deploring the widespread tendency among Catholics to equate Franco’s anti-Communist crusade with the cause of the faith. Edward became sole editor in 1947, a post he held until 1967. According to historian Rodger Van Allen (The Commonweal and American Catholicism, Fortress, 1974), Edward helped shift the magazine to a more socially attuned and renewal-minded Catholic vision. In this, Edward said, he was influenced by the thought of the American Benedictine Virgil Michel and by the philosopher Jacques Maritain.

Edward contributed more than three thousand editorials, articles, reviews, and fund-raising appeals in his sixty-five-year working association with the magazine. He addressed issues as diverse as housing, rural electrification, French culture, the integration of professional baseball, the Sinarquists (a secretive lay Catholic association in Mexico in the 1940s with fascist leanings), renewal of the Republican party following the Goldwater debacle, nuclear deterrence, and the challenge of China. When Jack Schwartz of Newsday asked him in 1995 what he thought was the most important editorial shift the magazine had taken during his tenure, Edward replied the 1938 editorial on Spain, and added modestly, as was his wont, "I think Harry Binsse and Philip Burnham wrote it, and I may have had a small hand in it." Then he smiled.

Edward stepped down as editor in 1967 to assume the position of publisher, where he remained until his retirement in December 1998. His stewardship was steady, frugal, and, at times, nearly miraculous. He helped establish the Commonweal Associates in 1959, and in 1982, when the magazine became a registered not-for-profit, he donated his majority stock to the foundation. In 1994, on the occasion of his ninetieth birthday, Edward consented to have his name attached to a new endowment for Commonweal’s future, the Edward S. Skillin Endowment Fund, but said, almost ruefully, "Now I’ll have to live up to it." No wonder Van Allen has called him the sine qua non of Commonweal.

Edward was a gentleman of grace and serenity whose presence could be disarming, if not transforming. He never seemed to be in a hurry, but set a precise schedule and routine that seldom varied. His interests were catholic but his wishes modest. He exemplified the saying of Saint Francis de Sales, "If I could be born again, I would have few desires," and he fulfilled the hope recited daily in the church’s morning prayer that we "live a life of holiness and justice all the days of our lives." He was a man of legendary acts of personal charity and an undaunted advocate for social change. Many in Congress and local government will be missing his timely, pointed letters. He wrote for a variety of other journals and edited The Commonweal Reader (Harper, 1949). Among his many awards were the 1987 Saint Francis de Sales Award from the Catholic Press Association, the 1990 Pax Christi Award from Saint John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota, and a number of honorary degrees.

The Commonweal staff, its readers, and supporters extend their condolences to the Skillin family. May Edward shine forever in God’s resplendent presence. And may the seeds Edward has generously planted here produce a rich and enduring harvest.

Published in the 2000-09-08 issue: 
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