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Flying into the Eye of the Storm: Carlton Skinner '30

Sarah O'Neill
[This story was originally published in the 2018-2019 issue of 1845: The Magazine of Tilton School]

In the two-story glass structure overlooking the academic quad of the Tilton School campus, a wooden model of the Frigate Bird hangs from the ceiling. Known as “the king of the birds,” it  is a seabird that flies mostly on the Pacific Ocean. To the native people of the Pacific Islands, these birds are the symbols of intrepidity and freedom.
This model was given to alumnus Governor Carlton Skinner ‘30 by Pacific Islanders as a sign of their gratitude for his contributions in Guam. Upon Skinner’s passing in 2004 at the age of 91, his wife, Dr. Solange Petit-Skinner, donated the model to Tilton School. The atrium, Skinner Tower, it stands guard in was named in his memory and dedicated in 2011. Governor Skinner’s long list of accolades include spearheading the desegregation of the United States Navy and overseeing Guam’s change from a Navy-run territory to a civilian-run government. Skinner is regarded as the “George Washington of Guam,” and is a prominent fixture in the territory’s history books. In the years since his death Skinner’s widow, Dr. Petit-Skinner, has worked to keep his legacy alive at his beloved prep school, Tilton School.

“The model of the Frigate Bird at Tilton is one my husband had in his office. It is the only bird that flies into the eye of the hurricane. That is taking a tremendous risk.” Dr. Petit-Skinner said of her donation. “I think he was given this gift because Carlton was fitting to this bird. When my husband passed away, I thought it would be better in Tilton. The bird for me symbolizes my husband, so it’s a little bit like Carlton is there.”

Governor Skinner and Dr. Petit-Skinner met when Petit-Skinner was recruited as an anthropologist and a psychologist for the South Pacific Commission and Skinner was the U.S. Senior Commissioner for the South Pacific Commission, and married in 1967. Dr. Solange Petit-Skinner worked for more than twenty years as an anthropologist in the Pacific Region. While Skinner has many accolades and an impressive history, Petit-Skinner is also accomplished in her own right. Petit-Skinner holds two doctorate degrees in anthropology and psychology from the University of Paris - Sorbonne, three master’s degrees in philosophy, psychology and art history, a diploma in oceanic languages and has received training in psycho-analysis and group dynamics.
 
“When we first met, I noticed he had the natural authority. I was impressed by that, but mostly impressed that each time he passed a motion, the motion was approved,” Dr. Petit-Skinner says of their meeting. “He was a fantastic diplomat. He was always doing things on the side of the islander to protect them from the republic in power.”

Skinner’s influence in the world around him began long before his time serving as the first military appointed governor of Guam. A native of Palo Alto, California, he came to Tilton School in 1925. During his time on the Hill, “Carl,” as his classmates called him, served his campus community in many ways. He was business manager of the school newspaper, class secretary-treasurer, a member of student council, manager of the hockey club, secretary of the chess club and a member of the Cum Laude Society among other things. After Tilton, Skinner matriculated at Wesleyan University and then to University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in finance. His time at Tilton served as a launching point for his service to the world around him and in 1984, he was awarded the Tilton School Plimpton Award for his significant contributions to society.

Before World War II, he was a correspondent for United Press International and The Wall Street Journal. He enlisted in the Navy as soon as the war began. In 1941, Skinner reported for duty on the USS Northland, where he served as an executive officer and was responsible for promoting crew members.

One of his most skilled motor mechanics was an African-American steward mate who wanted to be considered for the rating of Motor Machinist's Mate 3rd class. Skinner submitted his impressive papers to the Coast Guard headquarters. The answer he received in return was that the mate could not be rated as a Motor Mechanic because he was black.

“This struck me as both unfair and inefficient and therefore undesirable for military service,” Skinner later wrote in his memoir USS Sea Cloud, IX 99, Racial Integration for Naval Efficiency (2). He appealed the decision and it was reversed. The man in question for promotion, Oliver T. Henry, a mechanic aboard the USS Northland, was promoted from Steward to Motor Machinist Mate and later went on to retire as a Chief Warrant Officer of the United States Coast Guard.

This incident led Skinner to propose that ships be completely integrated. From 1943-1944, Skinner was Coast Guard Lieutenant in command of the weather ship USSSea Cloud in the North Atlantic. Upon taking command of the ship, and without any notice, Skinner’s proposal was approved. The Coast Guard-manned USS Sea Cloud served as the federal government’s first deliberate test of desegregation aboard a U.S. ship.

Read the full story here!
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