Three “Skips” not to be skipped

Published 6:43 pm Tuesday, May 21, 2019

I’ve only known three guys nicknamed “Skip,” but they are all memorable in their own way. The first was the late Stuart “Skip” Aronson of Greenville and East Carolina University where he taught my wife speech and drama in their evening college as she resumed her formal education in the early 1970s. We hit it off with him and his French-teaching wife, and as he was a fine tenor, the two of us performed opera duets around town. He also helped with dramatic readings in worship services at Jarvis Memorial United Methodist Church where I served as one of its pastors. Later, Skip wrote a historical drama about Blackbeard that ran in Bath for years and founded “Sundays in the Park” in the Greenville Commons which continues.

“Skip” MacMillan of Fremont and Goldsboro started dating one of our best friends after both of them went through painful divorces, and it was my pleasure to perform their wedding ceremony in 1978. He worked for Ralph Lauren and others in the clothing manufacturing business and got them to donate sewing machines for Jamaica that we took with us on a mission work team after a devastating hurricane. We later spent a week rooming together in California where both of us received training in Myers Briggs Personality Inventory, which he used in his consulting business and I in my churches. Now living in a Greensboro retirement community, Skip and Sylvia continue their lifetime of active church and community service.

Lastly, Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., famed in 2009 for his run-in with a Cambridge policeman on Gates’ front porch, then a “Beer Summit” led by President Obama, introduced himself to me as “Skip Gates” when we met at a Duke University dinner in 2013 feting those to receive honorary degrees the next day. I knew he’d taught English and African American Studies at Duke, Cornell and Yale before going to Harvard, where undergraduates voted him their favorite professor and more than 50 colleges and universities had awarded him honorary degrees. And he was one of the first winners of the MacArthur Fellowship for geniuses in a variety of fields.

But I did not know him for what he is now most famous: his PBS TV series on “Finding Your Roots.” And recently, I read an interview he gave Vanity Fair, in which this diminutive in size but towering in intellect 68-year-old had this to say when asked, “What is your greatest fear?”

“That we will be remembered as a people who… believe that some people are rich and some people are poor because ‘it’s their nature’ and that racism and poverty are inevitable parts of the order of things; that MLK and Bobby Kennedy died in vain; and that no one any longer believes what MLK said in his Nobel Peace Prize address in Oslo: ‘There is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we have the resources to get rid of it.’”

I’ll long remember his tribute to W.E.B. Du Bois who taught that “black people have been kept in oppression and deprivation by a poisonous fog of lies that depicted them as inferior, born deficient, and deservedly doomed to servitude to the grave. … So long as the lie was believed the brutality and criminality of conduct toward the Negro was easy for the conscience to bear. The twisted logic ran: If the black man was inferior he was not oppressed — his place in society was appropriate to his meager talent and intellect. Dr. Du Bois recognized that the keystone in the arch of oppression was the myth of inferiority and he dedicated his brilliant talents to demolish it.”

All of these different “Skips” have enriched my life and the much wider circles in which we live. My ears are attuned to listen for the possibility of meeting another unforgettable “Skip.” I don’t want to miss it.

Charles Michael Smith is a retired minister living in Washington who along with his wife grew up here.