By David Kelley
Scott Skinner of Middlesex, a partner in the Montpelier law firm Biggam Fox Skinner and a former director of the ACLU of Vermont and the Vermont Public Research Interest Group, died December 15 at age 76. He is remembered here by his friend David Kelley.
Scott Skinner was born in the 1940s in Pennsylvania, but he came of age in the ’60s. Perhaps the ideals extolled by John Kennedy made a lasting impression on him. Or maybe it was his parents, or being an Eagle Scout, but whatever the cause, Scott was an idealist. He was in one of the first waves of Peace Corps volunteers. They sent him to Nepal—and he never stopped caring about the people in the remote mountain villages of the Himalayas. His career was devoted to caring about others—children in Vermont whose parents couldn’t afford dental care, children without access to education on the other side of the world, and workers injured on the job.
Scott’s caring didn’t end with people. Last spring we sat together at a public hearing of the House Fish and Wildlife Committee. Almost any kind of hunting is sacrosanct in Vermont. But Scott told the committee that coyote-killing contests weren’t hunting. He said he and Mary let folks hunt deer on their land, but if anyone came there just to see how many animals could be killed in a single day they would post their land. With the help of Scott’s testimony, coyote killing contests are illegal now in Vermont.
As much as he cared—about wildlife, his garden, his neighbors, and children as far away as Nepal—Scott never took himself too seriously. A sense of humor accompanied him everywhere he went.
As everybody knows, he was the driving force behind “Vermont’s premier winter event”—the Hunger Mountain Climb. The magnet on my refrigerator door has the 50th anniversary Hunger Mountain Climb scheduled for February 13, 2027, and looking back at old notices from “Hunger Mountain Climb World Headquarters,” I can’t help but smile:
Back in 1977 when two climbers crawled through a minus 20-degree-F blizzard on their hands and knees and briefly touched the summit and quickly slid down the mountain to rejoin their friend with the frostbitten feet, one said to the other, “Do you think we’ll be doing this forty years from now?” The reply: You’ve got to be kidding; I don’t even want to do it next year. Forty years would be as likely as a sexual predator, with no background in politics or the military, becoming president of the United States.’”
Upon reaching the top of Hunger Mountain we usually celebrated with Scott’s drink of choice: Mr. Boston ginger brandy. Mr. Boston Ginger Flavored Brandy is possibly the most unpretentious drink known to humankind. It now has a special unpretentious place in the folklore of Vermont.
Scott always found room for laughter, but more importantly he found good almost everywhere he went and in almost everyone he met. Will Rogers said he never met a man he didn’t like, and I have a feeling Scott could say the same thing. Scott helped us all see our better angels. His idealism, integrity, and kindness were palpable. Just being around him served as a reminder of how good we might be.
The two of us worked on a couple of people-to-people exchange programs together. One was with lawyers and businessmen in Russia. Another was with lawyers and journalists in Bangladesh and Nepal. There were no luxury hotels or three-course meals on these programs. In the far reaches of northern Russia you took your chances. But no matter how remote or how spartan, there was no such thing as a place or meal that wasn’t good enough or for which Scott wasn’t cheerful and grateful.
What did trouble him was poverty, suffering, and no access to education. The lack of access to schools in the high mountain villages of Nepal was especially troubling, and when we returned from Nepal, Scott and his law partner, Pat Biggam, began their own effort to change that. At last count they had helped build a half-dozen schools.
Canceled flights or canceled visas tend to make my better angels hard to find, but sitting in Scott’s office and talking to him was a lesson in Zen-like “mindfulness.” He was patient and paid attention to details and sought solutions. That might be why he was a great gardener and a great cook. He seemed to revel in cooking, especially for large groups of people. I think he felt like a great Italian chef in the kitchen.
Visiting Scott and Mary at their home in Middlesex was always a special kind of event. Their home is a classic Vermont farmhouse on a classic country road. The barn is full of political posters from every conceivable campaign—including a few of my own. The house is full of eclectic artwork. The repartee between Scott and Mary at home was a little like a Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn movie. One of the best parts of those visits was watching how happy Scott seemed to be when cooking some exotic, new-found recipe for everybody.
One of my favorite writers is Ernest Hemingway. Knowing this, Scott gave me his father’s copy of A Farewell to Arms. It was published in 1929. On the inside cover is the signature of Joseph Osmun Skinner. To pick the book up and hold it is to be connected to the past. It is a past full of memories that don’t die and where Scott still lives, always reminding us of how good we might be.
I drank a dram of Mr. Boston Ginger Flavored Brandy tonight. I am grateful for all of the memories and all that it reminds me of, but drinking ginger brandy at my desk isn’t the same as drinking ginger brandy on top of Hunger Mountain in February. Scott’s spirit will be there again on February 16th. I hope to share another dram with him then.