Remembering Dr Mary Skinner – Obituary

31 January 2023

The University is very sorry to have to announce the death of Dr Mary Skinner. Mary was 86 and died in California after a long illness. She was among the first members of the teaching staff at Buckingham and remained with us until she retired in 2002. In addition to her role as Senior Lecturer in Politics, Mary took on several important responsibilities at Buckingham, including that of Senior Tutor.

Our first Principal, Max Beloff, gave careful thought to the subjects that should be taught here and how they should relate to each other. Max had been Gladstone Professor of Government and Public Administration at Oxford University and believed strongly that the study of government and politics offered an intellectually rigorous and stimulating subject at the university level. He was determined that Politics, especially the study of political institutions and political history, should be at the heart of the Buckingham approach to learning. Hence the early Planning Board encouraged the organization of two key degree programmes around it: Politics, Economics and Law; and History, Politics and English Literature. Politics later had a central role in our degree programmes in European Studies.

Given the importance of Politics in his vision of Buckingham, Max knew that it was vital to recruit some outstanding people to teach his subject. In the event, the choices proved truly inspired: Charles Vereker, who had held the Chair of Politics at Durham, and Mary Skinner, who was taking a break from teaching in the United States and had come to St. Anne’s College, Oxford as a Rhodes Research Fellow. Neither were remotely conventional figures. Despite their ideological differences – Charles was committed to the values of the Enlightenment and Mary (I think though it was sometimes hard to be sure) to something more Radical – they became firm friends (American colleagues described her as a ‘radical pluralist’ in the tradition of Thomas Paine).

Mary and Charles had much in common: impatience with sloppy thinking, generosity, loyalty to friends, tolerance of human frailty, and, above all, a capacity to inspire affection amounting to devotion in their students.

Mary Skinner was a remarkable woman who had an extraordinary life. Mary was born in New York in 1936. Mary’s mother (Maidee) had been born in Bremen in 1913, but the family emigrated to the United States during the first world war. After the war Mary’s mother returned to Germany to stay with relatives and friends; in 1933, however, her mother decided to bring her back to New York City. Mary’s father (Joe Moore) was a medical practitioner who started his long career working for the US Government eradicating malaria in the Georgia Sea Isles and then with the health provider Kaiser Permanente before going into private practice. Both of Mary’s parents had strong sympathies with the political left, despite coming from affluent backgrounds. After a brief period in upstate New York, they moved to California, settling ultimately in Inverness on the beautiful Port Reyes coast.

Mary was such a cosmopolitan figure – in the course of her life she was to live in America, Africa and Europe – that it would be foolish to associate her too closely with any particular place. Yet I am sure that California was a key element in her complex personality: apparently ‘laid back’ yet dauntingly energetic, pleasure-loving yet highly principled, unfazed and eternally optimistic.

Politically, Mary was always a Rawlsian liberal and quite to the Left of the Democratic Party. Anyone who thinks that Buckingham was the exclusive preserve of hide-bound reactionaries should remember Mary Skinner.

So, after study and teaching in the United States, research with her then husband David in Africa and research in Oxford, Mary came to Buckingham, and it is on her time with us that I want to concentrate. Perhaps the thing that most impressed lazy British colleagues – like me – was Mary’s amazing energy. She thought nothing of rushing up to London for a party, catching an early train back to Buckingham, teaching all day and then returning to London for another social event.

But the fact that Mary was always rushing about did not mean that there was anything slap-dash about her. Mary was a perfectionist, whether reading tirelessly so that she could keep up with the latest regulations of the European Union for her European Institutions course, or learning about wine-tasting, playing bridge (which she often did through the night with Paul Dawson) or Mastering The Art of French Cooking with Julia Child.

Mary was every bit as famous for her cooking and hospitality as for her teaching. Marc Vlessing, who shared rooms in Prebend House with her in 1981, says that Mary’s meals are still the best he has ever had. Even more astonishing was her ability to combine Politics and cooking. Philip Moss recalls an evening when Mary prepared a spectacular dish involving chicken sofficitto, black olives, cream and handmade tortelloni, all the while conducting a detailed discussion on Muammar Gaddafi’s Green Book.

As her son Christopher (who survives her and works in university administration) commented, she had a remarkable gift for friendship. She maintained an extensive range of warm relationships in the United States and in Britain. These friendships encompassed people of different ages, educational backgrounds, nationalities and political views. She was quite simply interested in people and always managed to enliven any gathering of which she was a part.

I always envied Mary’s rapport with her students. In that respect I would have loved to be like her, but I could never work out her secret. I have thought about it since and have decided that the answer is that Mary seamlessly merged two roles; she was both a clever and dauntingly well-informed academic but in other ways very much on the same wavelength as her students. Like them she seemed to live for the moment and could be delightfully irreverent. Of course, this all meant that some academics disapproved of her attitudes. While Max Beloff appreciated Mary, some of his successors did not really understand what a treasure they had in our Politics department. If I can think of an obituary for Mary Skinner, it must be ‘Her students loved her’.

– John Clarke

(With thanks to Christopher Skinner, Gillian Peele, Jane Ridley, Marc Vlessing, Marcus Hargreaves, Philip Moss and others)