Remembering Professor Emeritus Neil Skinner


Professor Emeritus A. Neil Skinner, age 93, passed away peacefully in the early morning hours of Saturday, March 7, 2015, at Capitol Lakes Terraces, with his wife Meg, their son Ben and his daughter Evelyn by his side.

Alexander Neil Skinner was born in Hankou, China on November 13, 1921 to Dr. Alexander Hugh Skinner and Winifred Mary (Beney) Skinner. He was sent back to England for schooling, including five years at Shrewsbury School. He was awarded the Styring Fellowship for excellence in Ancient Greek and Latin to Trinity College, Cambridge, on condition that he not study the classics there. After achieving a First during his only year at Cambridge (1941), he was conscripted into the Royal Artillery, for which he was manifestly ill-suited. The Colonial Office, in pursuit of “Hardy Seconds”, gave him the option of colonial service, and he requested placement in Fiji. Whereupon, in his infinite wisdom, the colonial secretary posted him to Northern Nigeria. With a few weeks notice, and given his facility with language, Neil sought out the eminent lexicographer G.P. Bargery to give him a few lessons in Hausa at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

After arriving in Nigeria by convoy, skirting German submarines, Neil was posted to Sokoto as a cadet. In order to pass language exams of the colonial service, Neil earnestly set about learning not only Hausa, but later Fufulde (Fulani). He served as assistant District Officer in Kano, before being appointed private secretary to the Chief Commissioner of the Northern Provinces, Sir John Patterson, who insisted that he learn Arabic and the fundamentals of Islam. Sir John recommended that Neil be seconded to the Aden Protectorate (now south Yemen). He spent 1945-47 in Aden and Mukalla, during which he became fed up with the British bureaucracy, and asked to return to Nigeria. He served as District Officer in Gombe and Bauchi, then asked to be seconded to the Northern Region Literature Agency (NORLA) which published educational books, a newspaper, and novels by Nigerian authors in their own languages. He also became known as an accomplished polo player, on the team which won the Nigerian Cup in 1948, marking the Emir of Katsina on his home field. He married Philippa (Pip) Goldsmith in March, 1950, to whom daughter Evelyn Margaret was born in 1951, and Simon Alexander was born in 1953.

Shortly before Nigerian independence in 1961, the Skinners moved to Dunedin, NZ, where Neil taught adult education classes for Otago University, including teaching Maori to Maoris, and served as a radio commentator on foreign affairs for NZBC. He maintained his fluency in Hausa by translating three volumes (over 1200 pages) of Hausa Tales and Traditions originally collected by Frank Edgar. He also compiled the first English Hausa Dictionary, the first of three dictionaries he published in his lifetime. In 1963-64, he was invited to teach Hausa at UCLA, and then in 1966, U.W.-Madison’s African Languages and Literature Department of U.W.-Madison hired him. His wife and children declined to be uprooted yet again, and remained in New Zealand.

 At U.W.-Madison, Neil taught Hausa, Fufulde, and Arabic language and literature. He published dictionaries, translations, and teaching materials still in use today. He also taught in the Hausa and Nigerian Languages Depts. of Abdullahi Bayero College, Kano, and Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Nigeria. In 1983, he assisted scholars compiling a dictionary of Hausa-Chinese at the First Foreign Language Institute, Beijing. He married Margaret (Meg) Gardner in 1970, and their son Ben was born in 1976.

Following his retirement in 1989, he completed a Comparative Hausa dictionary, and, together with a former student, a dictionary of Bwatiye/Bachama, and a light-hearted memoir, Burden at Sunset: Last Days of Empire. He was a member of the Friends of the Arboretum, and the United Nations Association, and maintained a vital interest in global affairs. He read voraciously, finishing 2-3 books per week. In 2000, a stroke faded his sharp wit, but to those who loved him, he had a twinkle in his eye until his last moments.

He was predeceased by his parents, and his sister Jennifer, his first wife Philippa Skinner, his mentor Edwin Ker and friends Dennison Brock and John Armstrong. He is survived by his wife Margaret (Meg) Skinner, their son E. Benjamin Skinner of NYC, his daughter Evelyn Skinner of Clyde, NZ, and son Simon (Sue Gifford) Skinner of Wellington, NZ, and twin grandchildren, Penny Skinner, a solicitor in Wellington NZ and Harry Skinner, a dancer with the Royal New Zealand Ballet.

Neil was a resident of Capitol Lakes Terraces for the last two years, with supplemental care provided by Agrace HospiceCare, after 13 years of post-stroke TLC provided by his wife and son. During his lifetime, Neil gave emergency support to several African students to complete their UW degree programs, and to continue this work, memorial contributions are welcome to the University of Wisconsin Foundation c/o US Bank, Lockbox 78807, Milwaukee WI 53278 for the A. Neil and Meg Skinner African Students Assistance Fund (Fund #132818133). Gifts to this fund can be made online at: Alternatively, American Players Theatre productions have given Neil much pleasure over many summers, and memorial contributions can be made to APT at P.O. Box 819, Spring Green, WI 53588.

Neil was laid to rest March 9 at the Natural Path Sanctuary of the Farley Center for Peace, Justice and Sustainability. A Memorial Meeting/Celebration of Life will be held at a later date.