Tuesday, October 28, not only marked the first major snowstorm of the season, but it was also a day to celebrate Professor Bill Skelton, Professor of Music emeritus and Robert Ho Professor in Asian Studies emeritus. An event entitled “Vignettes of Creative Cross-Cultural Undergraduate Education” took place in the afternoon, during which former students of Skelton’s recollected their memories of their professor and their experiences with him in India. Later that night, a group of three Indian musicians put on a concert at the Palace Theatre in honor of the popular professor.
Professor Bill Skelton came to Colgate University in 1954, by way of the University of Illinois and Yale University. His introduction to Indian culture was admittedly something of a “jigsaw puzzle,” and began when he was just a child. When he was young, missionaries who were visiting his house gave his brother a diminutive Indian token that is supposed to remove obstacles. His brother later passed this statue onto Bill, and it accompanied him on his many subsequent flights to India.
An ethnomusicologist and a mix tape he got hold of at Yale also served as significant factors that influenced Professor Skelton’s appreciation for and study of Indian culture and music. While Tuesday’s presentation did touch on the effects that others had on Skelton’s career, it focused more on the profound ways in which the professor impacted the lives of his own students.
Professor Skelton brought former student Liz Hartman Musiker ’80 to the front of the room, and encouraged her to reenact the traditional Indian stick dance that she “perfected” during her time abroad with Skelton’s study group. She noted that it was not the first time Bill had “embarrassed and humiliated her.”
Ms. Musiker admits, “I was never one of Bill’s favorite dancers — every time we did the stick dance, Bill’s face would get redder and redder with frustration. I nailed it one day in practice, though… That’s the power of Bill — he tests and challenges you to show him what you’ve got every second of the day.”
Professor Skelton seems to agree with this characterization of himself, since later in the presentation he declared, “Our students have talents that they don’t even know they have. If you just push them, there are explosions.”
Bill Skelton often instigated these “explosions” in his students by forcing them into new, and sometimes uncomfortable, situations. Bob Musiker ’80, who met his future wife Liz on Skelton’s off-campus study trip, recounted one of his many Indian adventures to the audience. Bob was forced to rely primarily on his own devices when trying to locate his music lesson early in the trip, for Skelton had given him nothing more than a scrap of paper with a few scribbles to serve as a map of the city. Bob proudly remarks that he eventually navigated his way to the correct building, only to find a line of cows standing right outside the door.
Though such experiences may be stressful at the time, they are an inevitable result of Professor Skelton’s philosophy that “kids should go out and learn things, instead of just being observers.” He must have espoused this same mantra when he pushed his students to learn the routine of an acrobatic drum group, or to dress up like horses on stilts for a traditional Indian dance number.
Tristan Lawrence ’97 was one of those students who strapped on pair of stilts to transform himself into a dancing horse. Mr. Lawrence came to Colgate intending to be a science major, and only met Professor Skelton because he was trying to get signed into CORE India (he had heard the teacher was an easy grader). At the end of his four years at Colgate, however, Mr. Lawrence graduated with a specialty in Asian art and many fond recollections of his journey to India with Professor Skelton.
“My trip to India was an unending series of new experiences, ranging from the simple to the sublime: everything from an overnight train trip to floating on the Arabian Sea at night and sitting in the front row of a temple dance.”
Skelton endeavored to convey his own enthusiasm for the study of Indian culture and music and to instill such enthusiasm in his students. Those who benefited from Skelton’s teachings were not limited to Colgate students and faculty. Vijay Palaparty, for one, was a sophomore at Carnegie Mellon University when he traveled to India with Skelton’s Colgate study group in 1999. He had been to India at least ten times before with his family, but this time he wanted to “work hard and make it on his own with other people his age who were doing the same.”
Likewise, Skelton’s influence extended beyond just American college students. In his short speech, Mr. Lawrence noted that Professor Skelton had a profound impact on the people they encountered in India as well. As a result of his many trips to India and his deep immersion into the culture of the country, Skelton developed a strong cross-cultural link with a variety of people there.
One man with whom Skelton developed a strong and lasting relationship was Dr. S. Ramanathan, a “musician’s musician” who often lectured with Professor Skelton. Geetha Ramanathan, Dr. Ramanathan’s daughter, is the woman who sang in Tuesday night’s concert, “An Evening of South Indian Devotional Music in Honor of Bill Skelton.” Professor John Carter explains that Skelton has known Geetha since she was a young girl, and he believes that “it is a moving tribute that these talented musicians are honored to be part of Professor Skelton’s special day.”
Professor Carter is the current Robert Ho Professor in Asian Studies. For over thirty-five years, Carter has taught the Hindu tradition, Hindu texts and Sanskrit at Colgate. He helped to organize this full-day celebration of his former colleague because he “worked closely with Professor Skelton and his remarkable India Study Abroad programs [for many years] while serving as the Director of Chapel House and the Fund for the Study of the Great Religions.”
Professor Skelton began his informal presentation with a bit of humor, infused with a bit of Indian culture. He played a recording of an Indian prayer, what he called a “lovely thing,” but after that moment passed he embarked on his presentation by saying “I’m Bill Skelton, and I approve this message.” This seemingly contradictory opening actually appears to embody Professor Skelton’s personality – he is a man with a deep respect for India, its music, and its traditions, but he is also full of the vitality of life.
Professor Skelton gave his students many things throughout the course of his teaching career and his many voyages to India. He gave them the experience of the Taj Mahal at sunrise. He gave them the encouragement to sing, dance and play on stage in front of their peers. He gave them his faith and his trust. He gave them the ability to become more comfortable with who they were as students and who they were to become in the future.