Were it not for the constant tragedy that surrounded her, Lucy Skidmore’s life might well have proceeded along the traditional path befitting a nineteenth century woman raised into high society. Well-educated and well-reared as a result of her family’s success in the coal business, the native Manhattanite seemed a likely candidate to live in her husband’s shadow, a fate not uncommon for a talented woman born in 1853.
Lucy showed a particular interest in education, teaching in her spare time at a mission school associated with the Presbyterian church to which she was a faithful devotee. But at twenty-one, she married John Blair Scribner, a man of his own impressive merit. Five years prior, at the age of twenty, he had taken over the publishing company founded by his now deceased father. Scribner would, of course, become a storied brand in American literature, publishing the likes of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Kurt Vonnegut, and Thomas Wolfe.
Sadly, John Blair would not be around to celebrate this success. Just four years into their marriage, John would die suddenly of pneumonia. To compound the tragedy, the couple had conceived only two children during their marriage, both of whom died in infancy. In 1879, Lucy was a childless widow. She returned home to live with her father and stepmother. Then, just three years later, her father also passed on.
I know, I know. This is getting bleak, but stick with me. Things do get much better. Fortunately, Lucy was not alone. She enjoyed a tremendous relationship with her stepmother. The two would travel together extensively and, in general, Lucy sought to make the most of her life in spite of her hardship. As Scribner’s husband, Lucy would likely have spent her remaining years as a homemaker, making the occasional foray into cultured recreation.
As a widow, she instead dedicated herself to a life of outreach and charity, reading to the blind, and teaching poor girls at the mission school to sew. In 1894, her stepmother also passed away, prompting her to visit her aunt and uncle in beautiful Saratoga Springs. After spending some time there, she determined to purchase her own summer home before eventually settling permanently in the area.
Once settled, she sought ways to satisfy her addiction to charity work. Approaching her fellow congregants at the Second Presbyterian church, Lucy proposed the establishment of the Young Women’s Industrial Club. Her new club had the lofty stated mission to “help little girls and young women to become self-supporting and to provide a social center for them.” Founded in an old church parsonage in 1903, the club’s goals were uniquely progressive, not just providing girls and women with the means to live independently, but also extending its services to all women, regardless of race or religion.
In 1911, the club attained a college charter for providing vocational and professional training to young women. It was thus renamed the Skidmore School of Arts and, eleven years later, Skidmore College. Though the early part of Lucy’s life was steeped in tragedy, she channeled her misfortune into something remarkable. She passed away in 1931, at age seventy-seven, and was buried in Saratoga Springs.
Forty years later, the college bearing her name would become a coeducational institution. Today, roughly 2,500 students each year seek undergraduate degrees on the verdant campus of this private liberal arts college.
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