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Harold Gordon Skilling (February 12, 1912 – March 2, 2001) was born in Toronto to Alice and William Skilling, and was the youngest of four boys.
In 1925, Skilling registered at Harbord Collegiate Institute where he excelled academically and became involved with several extracurricular activities, such as serving as president of the Literary Society, the associate editor of the Harbord Review, the battalion commander of the cadet corps, and playing basketball on the junior team. Skilling managed to graduate with twelve firsts in twelve subjects and was also awarded the Gundy-Doran scholarship in Canadian history, which helped to secure funding for future studies at the University of Toronto.
Skilling went on to study at University College at the University of Toronto. Here, too, he excelled academically and was first in his class in all years except his final year. He was likewise still involved with extracurricular activities, including the University College Literary and Athletic Society (of which he became president in his final year), associate editor of the Varsity, the Historical Club, pledged to the Psi Upsilon fraternity, and continued with studying the piano at the Toronto Conservatory of Music.
Skilling credits his time at the University of Toronto as bringing about significant changes in his way of thinking. He had begun to move away from the religious faith of his childhood and become increasingly supportive of socialism. A hitchhiking trip through North America during the summer of 1933 helped to crystallize his politics as he saw the effects of the Depression first hand. Returning to school in the fall of 1933, Skilling helped to organize and became the president of a Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) club at the University of Toronto. As his interest in politics grew, he became increasingly interested in and committed to Marxism. He graduated from the University of Toronto in 1934.
In the autumn of 1934, Skilling left for Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar where he studied at Christ Church College and focused on interdisciplinary studies of philosophy, politics, and economics, as well as modern history and international relations. Skilling took this as an opportunity to travel throughout England and Europe. During the summer of 1935, Skilling made his first visit to Central Europe and the Jugoslavia [Yugoslavia]. Beginning in Vienna, he took a boat along the Danube through Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Romania, and travelled further to Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Bosnia, and Croatia. This would be his first introduction to the complex ethnic, cultural, and political landscape of the region.
Back in England, Skilling was first introduced to Sally Bright on November 2, 1935. Bright was an accomplished scholar herself, and studied sociology and economics at Barnard College in New York City and was studying at the London School of Economics when she was introduced to Skilling. They were married in Prague on October 16, 1937.
Skilling received a Masters degree from Oxford in 1936, and soon after decided to focus his studies on Central and Eastern European studies with a primary interest in Czechoslovakia. He moved to London to pursue a doctorate under the guidance of R.W. Seton-Watson at the University of London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies. Skilling focused on studying the Czech language and researching Czech history, and began work on his doctoral thesis in May, 1938. Skilling’s doctoral thesis was completed and approved in 1940. It was recommended for publication by the examiners, however, due to wartime pressure, this did not occur.
Increasing tensions throughout Europe—including the Spanish Civil War, Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, and increasing German aggression—strengthened Skilling’s commitment to socialism and convinced him to join the Communist party in 1937. He secured work at the Czechoslovak Broadcasting Corporation in May, 1938, which allowed him to witness firsthand the troubling events in Czechoslovakia in 1938-39. After further travels throughout Europe, Skilling and his wife returned to England only one month before war broke out.
In July 1940, Skilling and Sally returned to Canada, and Skilling took up an assistant position at the United College in Winnipeg, followed by a position as assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin in 1941, and, in 1947, a position at Dartmouth College, where he and his family remained for the next twelve years. Skilling began work in 1946 to revise his doctoral thesis and to extend it to include the period up to 1914 with the intention of eventually publishing the finished work. The new title for the revised thesis is “The Czech-German Conflict in Bohemia, 1867-1914.” Skilling worked on the revision up until at least the 1970s, when it was rejected for publication by the University of Toronto Press. Throughout these years, he also travelled regularly to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. In 1958, he accepted a position of head of the Department of Political Science and Economics and a full professorship at the University of Toronto, and in 1962 became the Director of the Centre for Russian and East European Studies (CREES)—a position that he held until 1974. Through his involvement with CREES, Professor Skilling worked to develop exchange programs with the Soviet Union.
Skilling’s position at the University of Toronto allowed him ample time for travel and research. In 1961-62 while on sabbatical, Skilling moved his family to Vienna as he travelled through the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Four years later, in 1966, he returned to the Soviet Union to discuss an exchange program. During the summer of 1967 Skilling visited Czechoslovakia, East Germany and Poland. He returned to Czechoslovakia in May 1968 to witness the Prague Spring and again in the autumn of the same year. In 1969 Skilling again visited Czechoslovakia as well as Yugoslavia in order to gain insight into Yugoslav attitudes toward the events in Prague in the previous year. He would return to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union several more times throughout the 1970s and 1980s, as well as travelling extensively throughout North America for conferences and to give lectures. Professor Skilling also became increasingly active in advocating for human rights in Eastern Europe during this time.
In 1981, Skilling stopped teaching and was awarded the rank of professor emeritus. Several other honours soon followed: in 1981, Skilling was awarded the Innis-Gérin medal from the Royal Society of Canada and was made a life member of the Canadian Association of Slavists (CAS) and of the Czechoslovak Society of Science and Art (SVU); in 1982, the University of Toronto awarded Skilling with an honorary LL.D; in 1985 he was awarded the Masaryk Award from the Czechoslovak Association of Canada; in 1987 the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies honoured Skilling for his distinguished contributions to Slavic studies (he had also been elected to the board in 1981); and in 1992, on Skilling’s 80th birthday, President Havel awarded him with the Order of the While Lion—the highest honour for non-citizens. Several other honours and awards followed, some of which are listed below in Series 3.
Professor Skilling passed away on March 2, 2001 at his home in Toronto at the age of 89.