Roger D. Skillings, Jr. ’60

Roger D. Skillings, Jr. ’60 died on January 15, 2020 in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

(The following was published by the Provincetown Banner on January 18, 2020)

Roger D. Skillings died peacefully on the night of Jan. 15, with his wife and daughter beside him. He was 82 years old and had been suffering from dementia for years.

Born in Bath, Maine in 1937, Roger graduated from Andover and then from Bowdoin College. A cleft palate hindered him from speaking as a child, leaving him alone and fiercely attuned to the language that eluded his tongue but never his mind. He was a passionate reader and soon an obsessed writer, “Moby Dick” his bible, the rotting wharves along the Kennebec River his heroic landscape. He arrived in Provincetown in the summer of 1966, and was among the first group of writing fellows at the Fine Arts Work Center in 1969.

The author of eight books, mostly story collections, from “Alternative Lives” (1974) to “The Washashores” (2018), he was a singular stylist and a collector of the poetry of what people say, and of the stories we all live out. The deep, surprising currents that drive stories were his great fascination, and if you told him a story he would question you until unknown worlds had been revealed.

At the Fine Arts Work Center he found the kind of literary community he had dreamed of, and the place became his second life’s work. He served on the writing staff and Writing Committee for almost the entire history of the institution. He cared passionately about literature and the young people who aspired to make it and leaves behind generations of writers inspired by his example and his friendship.

Roger was so focused on his own values — a steely honor and fealty to the most complete truth he could know — that he barely recognized convention. In school he would walk out of a test as soon as he was sure he had passed: he wanted to go back to his real work. W.H. Auden’s admonition to writers, in his elegy to W. B. Yeats, seems like a capsule of Roger’s philosophy:

Follow, poet, follow right

To the bottom of the night,

With your unconstraining voice

Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse

Make a vineyard of the curse,

Sing of human unsuccess

In a rapture of distress

This he did, and his beloved Provincetown was a source of endless inspiration. He thought on his feet — somehow with his feet — and walked every block in town thousands of times over the years he lived here. Even when he had forgotten the town’s name, he knew Commercial Street by heart and walked its length every day. As he withdrew into death he was heard to ask “Where might one walk?” as if he had landed on a new shore.

He leaves his wife, Heidi Jon Schmidt, his daughter, Marisa Rose Skillings, and hundreds of friends, who may have only heard him talk about the weather, but recognized his spirit.

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