John Skinner — a pilot who leveraged his travel experience in his 2nd “career,” as co-founder with his wife Jeri of Builders Beyond Borders — died Friday evening, from complications of a fall the day after Christmas. Surrounded by family, after a happy day of sharing memories and music with loved ones, he was 80 years old.
A native of San Jose, California, he grew up in Sacramento. John joined the Navy at age 18, and served as a fighter pilot for 12 years. He met his future wife Jeri at the Officers’ Club at Moffett Field. Their sons Christian and Craig were both born on February 9 — though 2 years apart.
After the Navy, John continued his flying career as a captain for Pan American Airways. The Skinners moved to Westport so he could be based out of New York. With Pan Am he flew to Beirut, Johannesburg, London, Moscow, Rio de Janeiro, Tel Aviv and Tokyo. John finished his career with Delta Airlines, after their acquisition of Pan Am.
John loved flying and anything with an engine, especially cars. He enjoyed attending car races with Chris. His son’s friends used to line up their cars in the driveway so John could fix them.
Following retirement John, Jeri and Craig led Kingdom Builders and Builders Beyond Borders. He put his handyman skills to use building and repairing homes, clinics and daycare centers for the less fortunate. John and his family assembled groups of teens to travel to places like Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Dominican Republic and Honduras. Over 1,700 teenagers participated in these programs.
John leaves his wife of 57 years, Jeri; his son Christian and wife Tammy; his son Craig and wife Elizabeth; 4 grandchildren, and his French bulldog Winston.
In recent years John suffered from Parkinson’s disease but always kept a positive attitude. The effects of the disease contributed to his fall. In keeping with John’s generous nature, he donated his body to Yale University for research purposes.
His base was moving to JFK. He and his wife Jeri came east, to look for a new home town (and home).
They looked all around New Jersey and Connecticut, but grew discouraged. “Bias of all kinds was pretty prevalent,” Jeri recalls.
Finally — on their way back to the airport — they read a Holiday magazine story and stopped in Westport.
Holiday Magazine used this photo to illustrate its 1969 story on Fairfield County. And yes, that is a helicopter nose in the left side of the shot. (Photo by Slim Aarons)
The rest is history. The Skinners moved here; became involved in many aspects of town, and over the next 4 decades made quite a mark. (One example: They founded Builders Beyond Borders.)
The other day, Jeri sent me that 1969 magazine article that changed their lives — and ultimately so many others’.
Titled “New York’s Best Address,” it’s a long look into Fairfield County — or, as the subhead says, “The Connecticut county that is fast becoming the bedroom of the affluent New Yorker.”
Author Stephen Birmingham — who wrote over 30 books, many about America’s upper class — began by noting that a Greenwich woman said she lived in Fairfield County “because we’re so rich.”
Birmingham described suburban Fairfield County as “one of the most beautiful residential areas in the country.” He noted the “jagged, rocky coastline with hundreds of tiny coves and harbors, secluded beaches and deep-blue water dotted with diminutive offshore islands and, on any summer weekend, clouds of sailboats.”
Inland, “the land rises in a series of wooded hills threaded by bright streams and narrow, winding roads.”
Birmingham described many towns in detail — without shying away from issues like anti-Semitism at country clubs. Most communities were isolated from each other, he said.
For example, said Westport actress Bette Davis:
My God, I’d never be invited to a party in Southport — unless they wanted me there as some sort of curiosity. After all, I’m unmarried, a woman who works for a living, and one who makes her money in the entertainment industry. If I lived in Southport I’d never be accepted. Here, of course, it’s quite different.
Westport, Birmingham wrote, “has always been different.”
Early in the 1920’s (it) was discovered by New York writers and artists who began coming there for the summer. Soon they were buying and restoring old farmhouses and barns….
At one point most of the celebrated Algonquin Round Table had houses in Westport. They were joined by people from the theater and films — June Havoc, Eileen Heckart, Ralph Alswang, and David Wayne.
To this rich brew were added infusions from the worlds of radio and, eventually, television and book publishing.
To top it all off, a large contribution has been made to the population from the world of advertising…. This has given Westport the feeling of a bright, brash, assertive — raffish, but very well-heeled — artists’ colony.
Downtown Westport, Birmingham said,
abounds with what are called “fun” shops. There are fun dress shops, men’s shops, gourmet-foods shops, gift shops, ice cream shops, cheese shops, delicatessen and grog shops — and many others.
Collectively the fun shops of Westport exude an aura of franticness. The fun totters on the brink of hysteria, as though the shops were not at all sure how they were going to pay the bills for the fun merchandise. One suspects they are as overextended as, indeed, many of their best customers doubtless are.
Birmingham spent time describing 2 important elements of Fairfield County: zoning and transportation.
Ad executives Tom Wright and Frank Gromer wait at Grand Central for the train home. Just above Gromer's head you can see "Westport & Saugatuck." (Photo by Slim Aarons)
Commuting, he said, “has developed into something of an art form, and each train has a character and conveys a status all its own.” The 6:58 and 7:37 out of Westport were for the “bright, aggressive, ambitious young man on his way up.”
The 9:13 was for “the bankers, the lawyers, the heads of companies whose first engagements of important on any given day occur not much before lunchtime.”
Returning to Westport, Birmingham said, “wives wait tensely at the wheels of cars, motors racing, while their menfolk sprint across the Tarmac.” Of course, certain commuters told their wives they were taking the 7:18, when they actually arrived at 6:03 and spent “the intervening time at the station tavern.”
Birmingham noted that “the celebrated ‘rural character,’ so carefully preserved, does not make a particularly good place to raise teen-age children.”
It has been said — albeit facetiously — that if all the students in Westport’s luxurious Staples High School who have sampled marijuana and other drugs were expelled, there would be no school to run….
On the streets of Westport after school, a group very much resembling Greenwich Village hippies hangs out, looking bored and disaffected. There have been incidents of vandalism and breaking and entering — all laid to teenage boredom.
To ease the problems of isolation, Birmingham said, many parents give their kids their own telephones, cars — and charge accounts with taxi companies.
Bored Westport teenagers -- just like those described in Holiday magazine -- hang out in the library park ("Needle Park") on the corner of Main Street and the Post Road.
But, Birmingham concluded, “for all its shortcomings, Fairfield County is, to those who love it, a very special sort of place. They regard it with a special affection very close to love.”
Reading about that type of place — in 1969 — John and Jeri Skinner were attracted to Westport.
Holiday Magazine is long gone. Westport is no longer an artists’ colony, and in the intervening years the Skinners not only formed B3, but grew it into a huge organization and then gave up its reins.
Some things have not changed. Zoning and transportation remain huge issues; so does teenage boredom.
It’s interesting to look back, and re-read one travel writer’s view of us 43 years ago.
And it’s interesting too to speculate on the chance effect one magazine story had, on one couple from California. They read that piece, were intrigued by our town, moved here — and made it their home for the rest of their lives.
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