By Ed Dickinson September 27, 2016
In 1977 I was working with Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) and was looking to recruit vets into the organization. Someone gave me David’s name as a vet who was active in progressive politics, and who was respected in the Cedar Riverside community. As you all know, in those days CR was the epicenter of MN anarchy, socialism, and coop wars, and so I got over there to seek this fellow out. Over the next five or so years Dave and I, along with several other vets, and some non-vets, carried out many actions, protests, meetings, leafleting, negotiations with the VA, and other activities on behalf of vets. On Memorial Day in 1977 we marched into the Fort Snelling Memorial Day proceedings to say, honor the dead, and fight like hell for the living. I know that Dave would want me to say here that that fight for vets is as much needed now as then. Today, every day some 22 veterans suffering from PTSD or other consequences from their military service, commit suicide, and that does not include active duty personnel. David and I urge those here to continue what so many of you have done to stand against this country’s constant state of war.
Recruit David I did, but it is also the case that he recruited me, just as he did most all of you here today. I met David when he was 30 and I 32, so almost half his life was known to me only from conversations and hearsay. In fact, I am surprised by how much of his life I have missed since I have known him. Over the last week I have talked to several people who knew David, people who knew him from his earliest times in Wilmar, up to those who knew him till his last days. I could only talk to a relative few—and of those few, the more I heard the more I realized I could never talk to enough people to tell David’s story—the collective experiences of the human web here today are endless. So I can tell you here only about my David.
I was one of several people who moved into and around David’s life in that time during the 70s at the house on the West Bank. Being the unmoored man I was I moved into Dave’s place not too long after we met, and we went pretty much joyfully about our activities in that time. Some of you out there will recall the backyard bonfires that we fed with the endless supply of detritus that David gathered throughout his life. They roared up too light those many nights, singe nearby trees and threaten telephone wires.
Throughout beery evenings surrounding those fires, we bullshitted, conspired, imagined, laughed, and debated the fate of the world. It sure felt to me like somewhere I belonged.
As I talk about experiences like this one, I want to try to bring from them light on who David Skeie was, and what drew so many people to him. And so here I will say what I am sure I could say about no one else I have ever known: With only one exception, in the 40 years that I have known Dave Skeie, I have never known a single person who did not like him, such was the power he had to connect with people, often people very different from himself. That one exception emerged out of the flames of those fires: the elderly Mrs. Halberstrum. Fate had placed her in a small grandmother’s house on the other side of the fence from those firery nights. Mrs Halberstrum hated David. As I have now hit 71, it is abundantly clear to me why she did, and I am sorry we had so little regard for her peace. But back then, seeing her as we did, standing in the way of social progress, she was an early example of collateral damage.
David, like most of us here today, was lucky to have entered the world after the great depression, WW 2, and the Korean War, in a heartland town, at a time when America seemingly ruled the world. He was born, September 5th, 1947 in Wilmer, MN to Rueben and Helen Skeie. Rueben, having served as a lieutenant in Italy, came home to become a banker who ran the Kandiyohi Bank with a steady hand; Helen was a homemaker who ran the household with an equally steady hand. From all I have heard about her, and from knowing her myself, she epitomized the wife and mother those times idealized. I recall seeing the Kandiyohi bank, just a small town neat brick building, from a freight car, riding the rails out west with Dave—a repeat trip for Dave, and my first. His sister Robin was about 7 years younger. Dave and Robin would have had an older sister, Carolyn, but she died at birth in 1946.
The stories told to me, through the years or recently, by those who knew David during his days in Wilmar, blended together, almost like chapters in one story, so that they described a person of remarkable consistency. David loved sailing from his earliest days. He used his considerable artistic skills to carve, and draw boats, usually sailboats, and to build models of them. With his cousin Barb he took walnuts, broke them open, used toothpicks and the like to “boat” them up, and sailed them in the bathtub, sink, toilet, wherever they would float.
For a time the Skeies had a cabin on Green Lake, which juts out from the town of Spicer. It’s a pretty big lake. By comparison, it’s a bit more than 12 times the size of Lake Calhoun. When David was about 8 or 9, and cousin Barb 4 or 5, he loaded her into the family’s little red sailboat and took off. They sailed, and sailed, and sailed. Way out of sight. Eventually, several boats that were out looking for them found them far out into the lake. This was one of several times when Dave sailed away, as his good friend Mark Erickson so often pointed out, charting more by heart, and less by head.
While many of us sought acceptance and validity by acting as much like other kids as we could, loading up on common knowledge and experiences, David was always different. He was eccentric. No one I talked to could remember him ever anywhere but outside the pale. Never wore jeans; never was interested in or played sports, never latched on to the standard life rings so many of us grabbed onto to validate ourselves. Just as we here were used to seeing him in out of date sport coat, dress shirt—usually wrinkled, spectacular tie, pants—often suspendered, usually wrinkled—and sandals, even in November, those in Wilmar saw him usually neatly and more formally dressed. For a while when he was in grade school, he was seen out on the street carrying his violin to his lesson.
While so many of us teens in the early 60s were Ford guys, or Chevy guys, or occasional Dodge guys, Dave’s high school friend, George Hulstrand, recalls riding around with Dave at the wheel of his dad’s new Mercedes Benz. What could be more perfect for such an admirer of the Germanic uber culture that had come down through his mother Helen’s ancestry? The radio was playing . . . what? Does anybody out there think Skeie was listening to Elvis, The Beach Boys, the top forty? He and George were listening to short wave radio—London, Berlin, Moscow, the world far beyond Wilmar. Any music that would have emanated from those precise German speakers would have been Bach. Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin—all a bunch of johnny come latelies as far as David was concerned.
George met David in high school at a party. No one I talked to could remember David dating much at all—so no, it wasn’t a prom, certainly not a kegger sort of party, it was a German Club party. Many years later David would meet another of his close friends, Jeff Disch, at the U of M German club. George says of David that he was old before his time, indeed, that Dave looked forward to being an old fart. As he has seen Dave over the years, George sees him as the least changed person he has ever known. Where did that come from? Hard to say—it just felt right to be Dave. I recall him talking on different occasions about his fond memories of hanging around the garage when his dad was shooting the breeze with Norm Tollectson and other of his contemporaries. Dave loved listening to the talk, the banter, the good natured jibes. I believe he saw these aging men as models of the grown up that he wanted to be. And as a attendee of 30 years of hoplite gatherings, I think he got those models down pat.
Wherever it came from however, it is clear that from his earliest times David was eccentric, for the fun of it, for how naturally it came to him. Yet eccentric is only an aspect of David back then as a boy, only an aspect of him throughout his life. David was authentic. And that is who he always was. I did not possess that authenticity. One morning in 1924, when my dad was 8 years old, he woke to find that his mother had left and taken his sister with her—left my dad to reside with his alcoholic father. I can only imagine the depth of the hole left in my father, who spent much of his life trying to fill that hole with accomplishment, and angry that it would not fill. I never met one of my mother’s 8 sisters and brothers, nor of course any of my innumerable cousins. Neither I, nor my brother Steve, remembers the other having been in the bedroom we shared for seven years. We were an atomized family. Much of who I was, I had invented.
One night, after I had known David for about a year, I confessed to him that the foursquare guy he thought he knew was a fake. I told him terrible things I did that he, nor anyone else, knew of. I told him what a struggle it was for me to hold myself steady, to fill all those holes. Dave looked at me and said, “Ed, you’re an angel. I couldn’t want any more from a friend.” He told me what he saw, what he experienced, and it was truly the very first moment of a healing process that still goes on. David was the most authentic person I had ever known, and he had just told me that I was an all right guy.
There is so much of David’s life that is a guess on all our parts, and will forever remain so. What was it about this man that caused so many to love and admire him? To be so attracted to him? His authenticity does not seem to me to have come from a whole piece, as it might for the born again Christian who finds all answers in Christ, the child who grows up fascinated with the stars and winds up charting new ones. He was clearly conflicted, as most of us are.
He loved learning about history, but perhaps did not have the academic take on things that might have made the study of history paramount. He was studying history in a world that he saw as unfair, and perhaps he saw contradictions in that path to tenure, and the singlemindedness that it would take to wind up as an academic don. He could not hold back from the causes that supported how he understood the world.
In unity Theatre, performing in The Cradle Will Rock, he found resonance in its themes of corporate greed and corruption, sympathy for the common and little guy, and maybe identity. This authentic man identified with veterans who had been used and thrown away, farmers who fought against powerlines stitched across their land, fellow janitors whom he knew in the full sense as persons, treated as components in the university construct, fellow union members who wanted their union to foster union. Dreamer, or crusader, I think these stances were natural to his authenticity. As was his support for 3rd party candidates—the source of several arguments I, the pragmatist, had with him, or his support for such outliers as Jesse Ventura, whom he felt was a better choice than those politicians I once heard him refer to as the usual suspects. And of course he loved Bernie. I wasn’t for Sanders then or later, yet after attending a rally with Dave and Kathleen, David left me no choice but to go home and contribute $100 to Sander’s campaign, and send him the receipt for having done so, as he sent his to me. Such was my respect for David, and what underlay his beliefs.
Most of us had our disagreements with David, we saw him battle weaknesses of drink and smoke, as many of us did, yet we still could not help being drawn to him. I think David Skeie was our one and true everyman, the Homer Simpson who offered us the adventure of going along for the ride with a singularly unique person. The pull we felt toward him, what he thought, what he wanted to accomplish, was so strong for so many of us as to defy what reason we possessed.
He did not contract to have his basement “put” in, he offered us the adventure of helping him dig it. We helped him jury rig a 50 gallon drum to heat his house, helped him set it up in the living room, and figure out a way to catch most of the falling ashes before the rug ignited. For his garden wall David scrounged the bricks and bought only the concrete mix—we dug the sand for the mix out of his garage floor, then helped him shore up the floor against the hole we had dug. We gladly put his boat in the water and pulled it out. We lent him a hand in jury-rigging that boat time and again, then sailed it with him into wind whipped Leech Lake, at night, no lights, some literally fearing for their lives. Some of us spent nights with David freezing on islands into which we had run aground, to be ignobly towed back to harbor the next morning for twenty bucks. And we did it again, barely managing to make it back in with mainsail and jib ripped out. We brought him our compost in 5 gallon buckets, we gave him our clothes, we drove him wherever he wanted to go lest he be forced to use his own car.
We railed at him as he pulled hundreds of nails and straightened them for reuse, we went out to eat with him and his free meal coupon when we weren’t even hungry, then paid the bill when it was found to be out of date, we brought him beer on one of the last days of his life and were overjoyed to see him open his eyes and go ahhhhh.
Over and over I have heard from those who knew him: “I feel lucky to have known him at all,” “The engine behind the Gilbert and Sullivan gatherings, one my most loved traditions,” “Farewell to a true treasure,” “I am sick with sadness,” “One of the most generous people imaginable,” “I have never known anyone remotely like him.” “I have never known anyone remotely like him.”
It’s a hard world that would take such a person so quickly from Kathleen, who loved and cared for him, so quickly from so many who loved and admired him—he came home from the lake sick on September 4th, the day before his 69th birthday, and died 11 days later.
All of us, more or less, one time or another, struggle with getting through this world, all of us can be fragile and afraid, all of us seek help, love, and understanding. David begrudged only hypocrisy, not the sincere beliefs people hold to endure life that takes away those we love, then us. Thoughts, prayers, tears, offerings, coming together, sharing sadness for David, for Kathleen, for ourselves for our loss, all have been offered and are welcomed here on David’s day. What I turn to, and what I think David would have turned to had he been the one who lost, is what is here with and among all of us. For me, in the most real sense, David Skeie does in fact remain. Many lives are different, for his having been in this world. He will play some part in the way we think and feel, and in our efforts to be authentic people—true to ourselves and to others. Because we lost him I believe we will hold dearer to others. Because we could have known him better, we will know others better, lest we lose them when there was so much more there for us. Today we are all part of David’s web and so each other. At this time I am where I need to be, and I thank all of you who are here with me.
From Jodi Magnuson (attached by Ed):
I put together an album on my genealogy flickr page with photos from the memorial for Dave.
I took a video of Ed’s eulogy, but it was too big for flickr, so I’m putting it up on my youtube page. This is the link: https://youtu.be/es9S8fWtSLw
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