Of Many Things
If saints were still chosen by popular acclamation, those of us who knew Edward Skillin, the late publisher of Commonweal magazine, would be shouting his name from the rooftops. Edward stopped going into the Commonweal office only two years ago, at age 94. He first joined the staff in 1933, as a young Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Williams College, and for over six decades he worked there—as managing editor from 1938 to 1967 and then, from 1967 to 1998, as publisher. On August 14, at the age of 96, Edward went home to God.
Probably few of you recognize his name. A man of slight physical stature, Edward was not the sort to seek even 15 minutes of fame. That Commonweal had a reputation for civility in the heat of controversy was because of Edward, but he never took credit. The thousands of editorials he wrote went unsigned. A daily communicant and third-order Benedictine, he was best known to the poor and homeless, who for years beat a steady path to the magazine’s door and caused no end of disruption until Edward, out of consideration for his colleagues, shifted his almsgiving out-of-doors. You’d be walking alongside him on the way to lunch, and all of a sudden he wouldn’t be there—he’d have spotted some street person and, entirely unasked, would be stuffing a dollar bill into the person’s pocket. The joke was that he often gave alms to a shabbily dressed passerby, who would become quite indignant at being mistaken for a beggar.
Edward radiated an internal sunshine. The waitresses at the midtown diner where the Commonweal editors always ate lunch invariably addressed him as “sweetheart” (fully deserved), and the normally glum cashier would simply glow when he paid his check. None of the rest of us could get a smile out of her.
But don’t be fooled: Underneath his gentle, unfailingly courteous manner was one very passionate, tough-minded man, who stood for both intelligence and broad, catholic sympathy. I wondered at first, when I became Commonweal’s book editor in 1979 and joined the American Book Critics Circle, why Francine DuPlessix-Gray immediately nominated me to the organization’s board of directors. It was because “New York intellectuals” respected Commonweal’s courageous editorial stands over the years: the refusal to support Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930’s, the defense of religious liberty and criticism of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950’s and, decades later, opposition to the U.S. role in the Vietnam War. But it was the unassuming Edward Skillin who led the magazine to take those stands. Over the years he mentored people like John Cogley, Wilfrid Sheed, Daniel Callahan, John Deedy, John Leo, Jim O’Gara and Peter Steinfels.
Edward’s unworldliness was daunting. Lady Poverty was Commonweal’s patron saint—and no one on the staff ever knew for sure whether we’d make the next payroll. Edward’s fundraisng letters were comical. He had the idea, I think, that any contributors to Commonweal would be robbing money from their own children’s lunch money; hence his big concern was to protect benefactors from giving too much.
Every morning when I showed up for work, I would stop into Edward’s office to greet him. I wanted his blessing for the day, and he always gave it. He was one of those people who get you through the weeks and years.
At Edward’s memorial Mass, Patrick Jordan, Commonweal’s managing editor, eulogized Edward by quoting Cardinal Newman in The Idea of a University: “The true gentleman...make[s] everyone at their ease and at home.... He never speaks of himself except when compelled, never defends himself by mere retort; he has no ears for slander or gossip...and interprets all for the best. He is never mean or little in disputes, never takes unfair advantage, never mistakes personalities or sharp sayings for arguments, or insinuates evil....” That catches Edward. But there was more—the man’s cheerfulness, his unfailing charity, the purity of heart.