In Memoriam: William E. Skelton, Former Dean and Loyal University Friend
William E. Skelton and Margaret Groseclose Skelton at the 2005 dedication of the Inn at Virginia Tech and Skelton Conference Center
By Albert Raboteau
BLACKSBURG, Va., September 3, 2008 -- The Hokie Nation was in mourning this week following the death of one of the university's most loyal supporters, William E. Skelton, a former dean who last week succumbed to cancer at age 89.
Throughout his 70-year affiliation with Virginia Tech, Skelton (agricultural engineering '40) personified the motto of the university: Ut Prosim (That I May Serve).
A dean emeritus of the Extension division at Virginia Tech who began his career at the university as director of 4-H programs and Virginia Cooperative Extension, Skelton’s love and loyalty for Virginia Tech found expression in his roles as volunteer fundraiser, reunion organizer, leadership board member, and campaign chair.
Skelton was equally selfless in his devotion to causes throughout the commonwealth and the world, most notably with 4-H and Rotary International, an organization that he served as club president, district governor, and president.
President Charles W. Steger, a close friend of Skelton’s for many years, praised him for his commitment to the university and the surrounding community. "He really was a selfless volunteer," Steger said. "And he combined that dedication and enthusiasm with considerable skill."
Tom Tillar, vice president for alumni relations, lauded Skelton's contributions to the university’s alumni association.
"Bill Skelton led and chaired the single most important initiative in the association’s 130-year history -- that of building the first alumni center," Tillar said.
Under Skelton's guidance, that project eventually grew to include a new hotel, conference center and alumni center complex that was completed in 2005.
In recognition, the conference center portion of the complex was named in honor of Skelton and his wife, Margaret Groseclose Skelton.
She is also an emeritus member of the Virginia Tech faculty who has continued to support the university as a volunteer and philanthropist and, along with her husband was a charter member of the Ut Prosim Society and its President's Circle, the university's highest distinction for donors.
Just this past summer, Skelton was honored by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education with the Ernest T. Stewart Award for Alumni Volunteer Involvement, the highest honor the organization gives to an alumni volunteer.
In nominating Skelton for the award, Elizabeth Flanagan, vice president for development and university relations at Virginia Tech, said, "No other person affiliated with the university has touched the lives of more alumni and friends of Virginia Tech than Dr. William E. Skelton."
Skelton was known as a strong advocate for programs he worked for, both as an official at Virginia Tech and as a volunteer.
In the mid-1960s, while he was responsible for 4-H programming through his position at Virginia Tech, Appalachian Power offered to donate land for a 4-H center.
Rather than simply expressing thanks, Skelton negotiated a better property. The result: 120 acres with two miles of waterfront along Smith Mountain Lake, where more than 20,000 youth and adults participate in programs each year.
Skelton, who first became involved with 4-H as a child growing up on a farm in Dinwiddie County, continued to be active in the organization after retiring from Virginia Tech in 1979. In recognition of his years of volunteer service to the Smith Mountain Lake 4-H Educational Conference Center, that facility, still located on the land he secured decades ago, was renamed in Skelton's honor in 2004.
Skelton had credited Virginia Tech with enabling him to pursue his interest in volunteer work.
"Virginia Tech allowed me the flexibility to serve as a leader with Rotary International while I was working for the university, and I’ve always appreciated that," Skelton has said. "It made we want to do the best job I could on projects for Rotary, for 4-H, and for Virginia Tech."
A former president of Rotary International, Skelton was honored for helping begin that organization's PolioPlus initiative, which to date has raised nearly $700 million toward ridding the world of that disease.
Former Virginia Tech President T. Marshall Hahn Jr., who led the university during much of Skelton's career, said Skelton's "tireless efforts on behalf of Virginia Tech, the Skelton 4-H Center, Rotary International, and many other organizations has made it possible for generations of Virginians to aspire to greater learning, teaching, and living."
"Dr. Skelton understood the power of volunteers and was a very successful fundraiser for Virginia Tech, Rotary International and 4-H" added Thim Corvin, the university's associate vice president for development. "He had an enormous presence, quick wit, commanding eloquence, and an enormously persuasive manner."
Skelton received the Virginia Tech Alumni Association's Alumni Distinguished Service Award in 1983, and was later president of that organization. In 1998, then university President Paul Torgersen presented Skelton with the university's most prestigious honor, the William H. Ruffner Medal.
"Bill embodies Virginia Tech's motto of Ut Prosim, having dedicated his life to serving his country, his school, and his community," Torgersen said at the time. "He cares deeply about the university and has worked diligently towards the fulfillment of its land grant mission."
Virginia Tech Professor Emeritus of University Outreach and International Affairs Doug McAllister worked closely with Skelton on numerous projects and considered him both a friend and mentor.
"Bill has left this earth, but he will never leave our minds and hearts," McAllister said. "How lucky we all were that he touched our lives. How lucky the heavens are now that Bill has joined them. I am sure that by now he has already re-structured the Hokie chapter [up there]."
George "Buddy"” Russell grew up on a farm in Fauquier County, met Skelton though his involvement in 4-H programs, and wound up attending Virginia Tech with help from a scholarship Skelton helped arrange.
"He's probably had the most influence on my life as anyone," said Russell, who went on to become vice president of alumni relations at Virginia Tech, before retiring in 1995.
Russell said that, for Skelton, helping others was "just his nature. He wanted others to have the same opportunity that he had."
Along with his wife, Skelton is survived by a son, John Kyle Skelton, and a daughter Jean Skelton Montague.
"With Dad it has always been about service to others," Skelton’s daughter told the Roanoke Times. "He's just dedicated his whole life to that."