The Time Capsule | Roy Marshall
I met Jim Skahill years ago but knew him only because of August Werner.
Werner, a one-time Red Oak resident, was alleged to have flown a heavier-than-air machine 17 years before the Wright brothers. Some felt history should have recognized him, but did not.
Skahill wrote a book about Werner’s flight, which I used in a 2006 column. That was the last I thought of Skahill until one day last week.
We all know the routine; small, brightly-lit room, chair with an arm rest, stainless steel cart, and an assortment of lab tech equipment. You sit, arm extended, palm up, while a length of rubber is tightened and tied above the elbow. I’m in the custom of watching only long enough to see the needle. At that point I either look away or faint. A few days ago my focus turned to the wall and, in that instance, an intriguing work of art.
The framed assortment of caricatures is large; close to three feet high by nearly two feet wide. Taking a measurement wasn’t practical, as a no-nonsense lady was bleeding me like a faucet. She didn’t know much about the sketches, which we guessed had been done in the early 1980s. Others I asked in the clinic said it had been there prior to them; they assumed the hospital owned it, and knew very little about where it came from or how it happened to be displayed in that room.
To my untrained eye, it seems the corridors of MCMH are adorned with appropriate but mostly unexciting pictures, while this jewel – a who’s who depiction of faces in Red Oak three decades ago – is essentially hidden away.
The artist was a man of diverse abilities. After seeing the drawing, curious to know more, I made a trip to Red Oak’s public library and picked up seven books written by Skahill. One is on management, which includes reference to his military service during World War II. He then did a short stint in college, dropped out to take construction jobs, then a janitor’s position at the newly opened Union Carbide plant in Red Oak. There he advanced from sweeping floors to production work to supervisor, and eventually moved on to become assistant manager of the facility in Fremont, Ohio. He wrote that “due to a union attempt at the Red Oak plant” he returned to become overall manager of an operation that, at the time, employed more than 600.
A few years later, he was promoted again, this time to Union Carbide’s director of employee relations on the divisional level in Cleveland, Ohio.
Other books written after his retirement had to do with growing up in Imogene (he was born there in 1924, son of an Irish tavern owner), his experiences in becoming a pilot, a book of jokes, and a lengthy essay on the direction this country is moving, which he titled “Where Did We Lose It?” (If he could see colleges of today he might not have asked.)
Skahill wrote frequently of southwest Iowa, combining history with folklore and his own imagination and wit. He describes an uncle as having false teeth that “were a gift from an undertaker.” He tells of a boy expelled from parochial school for cursing and from a public school for praying.
Skahill’s books reveal much about his career, his values and sense of humor. Oddly, while he uses art in illustrations, he tells us very little about when or where he developed abilities as a cartoonist. In his books I found no reference to the drawing that may be his magnum opus.
Among the dozens of men and women depicted are Bill Zenor, then a state trooper. Zenor has a print, and thinks it likely others were made. The one in the hospital may be a print as well. He doesn’t know where the original is or much about the story that goes with it. I suspect we have readers who do, and I’d be interested in hearing from them.
Roy Marshall is a local historian and columnist for the Red Oak Express. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.