Nordhoff, Nancy Skinner (b. 1932)

  • By Domnic Black
  • Posted 11/12/2016
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20186

Nancy Skinner Nordhoff is the founder of Hedgebrook, the retreat for women writers located on Whidbey Island. She is a Seattle-born philanthropist; a mother of three; a one-time pilot; and an avid baseball fan. She learned philanthropy in her family's foundation, the Skinner Foundation, and in the 1970s served as president of the Seattle Junior League. She was one of the eight women who founded Seattle's CityClub, a nonpartisan forum for civic debate and discussion. She was also a founding board member of Pacific Northwest Grantmaker’s Forum (later renamed Philanthropy Northwest). In the process of buying the land for Hedgebrook and building its infrastructure and vision (of "radical hospitality" and diversity), she moved to Langley on Whidbey Island. She remains active in Langley community endeavors, such as "Goosefoot," a nonprofit dedicated to sustainable community development. In 2016 Hedgebrook received the Seattle Mayor's Art's Award for Art & Innovation.

Early Life

Nancy Skinner Nordhoff was born in Seattle in 1932, the youngest child of Winifred Swalwell Skinner (1900-1965) originally of Everett, and Gilbert W. Skinner (1898-1953). Her parents divorced in 1938. Nancy was 6 years of age. "It was such a disgrace that they sent both my brother and sister out of town to high school and our family was really never together again, as a whole family" (Black, interview 1).

Gilbert W. Skinner was partner in the Skinner-Eddy shipyard that prospered building merchant ships during World War I. The shipyard partnership was dissolved in 1923. In subsequent decades The Skinner Corporation had interests in real estate, banking, the Alaska Steamship Company, and as the franchise holder for Caterpillar in Alaska, Washington, and Hawai'i. 

Asked about her father, Nancy Nordhoff said: 

"I can’t tell you what he was like. I knew him in the office in the Skinner building when I needed something or should go and say 'Hello.' Had thanksgiving and Christmas dinners at his house but never really did anything with him. They were formal Christmas dinners and it went up through before I went to college. Mother ... she had a drinking problem so who knows what she was like. Up and down" (Black, interview 1). 

Because of these circumstances, Nancy remembers spending much of her childhood alone or in the company of a nursemaid, Pat Savage, whom she liked immensely. 

"When I was 13 she was probably 19 or 20, and it was easy to get along with each other. I didn’t misbehave, why should I? And the man that she eventually married she met during those years, and Harvey was really nice to me too so, you know, it was people in the house or people that cared about me who I cared about also, and I couldn’t say that about too many people" (Black, interview 1). 

She attended St. Nicholas School in Seattle’s Capitol Hill, where the family home was situated. Of those years she said, "I was a tomboy ... what I learned was minimal compared to what I learned about how to build a team.” Chemistry was the one subject she enjoyed, but sports took precedence, and in particular, baseball: 

"I don’t know how far back it goes, but the Seattle baseball team which was a AAA club at that time called the Rainiers, kind of saved me. It gave me something to do -- not only listen to the radio in the thirties and forties but to clip things out of the newspaper and pin it up on an attic wall and pay attention to what was happening with the ball club. So it gave me something to really zero in on. That and building balsa wood airplanes" (Black,  interview 1). 

College and Flight  

The impact of Nancy Skinner Nordhoff's college years is clear from how she remembers the origins of Hedgebrook: "Somehow women’s voices got embedded and came out at the right time, 30 years later from when I graduated." The idea of liberating women's voices is central to Hedgebrook's mission, and has its genesis in Nordhoff's years at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. 

Her choice of college was largely self-driven, though the initial suggestion came from one of her high-school teachers. She visited her father in his downtown Seattle office, told him of her choice and how much it would cost, and he duly provided the funding. "Well the only thing my mother said to me was 'Don’t get pregnant. Bye-bye'" (Black, interview 1). 

Although she's never considered herself academically inclined, Nordhoff studied chemistry at college and graduated in May 1954. More significant than her studies, though, was the social scene she became part of, the continuing role of sports in her life, and the ideas she absorbed from being in an all female environment: 

"I consistently think that a young woman that age, 18 to 21, 22, has every opportunity to do anything she wants in the way of leadership ... I mean if a woman has to share activities with boys, with men, you only get half the job that you can choose from. So if you have the whole job to choose from, you expand greater. And in those years, they’re pretty formative years, and I think if you grow and develop a strong foundation for yourself, how you feel about yourself, then you can go out into the world and compete more successfully" (Black, interview 1). 

The immediate post-college years saw Nordhoff travel to Europe and, on her return to the United States, undertake her first solo journey by car across the United States. 

On arriving back in Seattle, Nordhoff decided to learn to fly. It was a decision fired by a desire to define herself clearly against the reputation of her siblings, older brother Ned Skinner (1920-1988) and sister Sally Behnke (1923-2013): "I had about twelve hundred hours in the air in two years, and I really do wonder what the devil was I doing? But I think that was the motivation: I’m going to show them I can do something myself" (Black, interview 1). Her longest solo flight was from Bellevue, Washington, to St Louis, Missouri.  

By this stage Ned was already a leading business figure in Seattle life, "a benevolent dictator," as his sister Nancy described him. He would go on to be one of the five investors in the construction of the Space Needle and in bringing the World’s Fair to the city in 1962. In the years following he was also successful in growing the Skinner Corporation’s interests from shipping and real estate to a diversity of other pursuits, including Pepsi-Cola bottling and NC tractor sales. 

Against this backdrop, in the mid 1950s Nancy Skinner Nordhoff became involved in fundraising for the first time, for Mount Holyoke College: 

"I made a couple of very good friends of the women who were in the administration, and when I got home of course they knew I had some money, so they asked me to do fundraising for the college. And I did a couple of trips in the airplane, which was fun, and that reputation lasted longer than it should have because I only did it for six months ...
"DB: So you did trips, as in?
"NSN: As in flying from Bellevue airfield to Wilbur, which is southwest of Spokane, to visit with an alumna and ask her for a gift" (Black, interview 1).

Nordhoff's involvement didn’t stop there though. She became active in the development committee for the college and regional fundraising campaigns -- experience that she credits as giving her grounding in the nuts and bolts of fundraising. 

Sports in the Life of a Young Woman

 "College was paid for. After college, when I needed money I'd go the office and I’d ask my brother-in-law for money. I had ... my mother died and there was small inheritance there which I could claim as my own, as it was given to me. My father and grandfather had left two trusts, which I ... didn’t know enough about to know that [it] was a substantial amount of money. Until later. And that’s where the story gets good [laughter]" (Black, interview 1).

Permanently settled back in the Pacific Northwest, Nancy Skinner Nordhoff naturally found herself drawn back to watching baseball, in the shape of the Seattle Rainiers. Nordhoff’s friendship with the Rainiers' general manager at the time, Dewey Soriano (1920-1998), led to an invitation to game 5 of the 1956 World Series. Pitcher Don Larsen’s perfect game against the Brooklyn Dodgers came to be seen as the highlight of his otherwise patchy career. 

"One thing I think it did, sports, for both my sister and myself, was to give us a legitimate emotional release from whatever life gave to us. Where you’re supposed to be a lady or you’re supposed to be calm or you’re supposed to behave yourself. You could yell and scream and do all kinds of things at the ballpark or the radio ... I find now that winning and losing are both very emotional for me, so I try and stay away from it a little bit. Kind of crazy" (Black, interview 1). 

Learning Motherhood

Nancy Skinner met her future husband, Arthur Edward Nordhoff (b. 1929), while she was flying out of Bellevue Airfield, which was owned by his father. Getting married was an expectation: Both families knew each other, and so it seemed like a natural arrangement. The couple married in 1957 and lived in what was then called Bellwood Farms in Bellevue. They had three children: Charles "Chuck" Gilbert Nordhoff (b. 1959), Grace Ann Nordhoff (b. 1960), and Carolyn Nordhoff (b. 1970).

“I didn’t know how to be a mother because I hadn’t learned that, so it was new and I can’t say it was fun but I took it on, obviously I didn’t have any other choice. And certainly I feel that's one of the best things I ever did in my life: They're three fine people. And we’re closer now than we ever have been I think, which has I hope been the result of my effort to become more of a mother than I was when they were growing up ...
DB: When you said you wanted to be more of a mother … was it just about spending time with them? 
NSN: Yeah, it was spending time with them, but it was also being emotional with them ... ah, just telling them I loved them. I don’t think I knew that I loved them, nor did I think I knew how to say that if I did. So all of that estranged-ness when I was growing up ... I just didn’t know how to break through that kind of thing. And you don’t recognize it at the time but looking back on it I wasn’t a very warm mother. I did all the right things: good meals, nice clothes, and a good house. I went to their sporting events and all their school activities, but it just didn’t have any real feeling behind those activities" (Black, interview 1). 

The World of Philanthropy  

As the 1970s arrived, Nancy Skinner Nordhoff and her sister, Sally Behnke, joined the board of the Skinner Foundation, the not-for-profit arm of the family business. Hawai'i, Alaska, and the Seattle area were the focus of the business, so they became the focus of the philanthropic giving, with particular emphases on education, the arts, and social services. What was then called Children’s Orthopedic Hospital (now Seattle Children’s Hospital) was one beneficiary, in keeping with the family’s history with the institution. (Nordhoff’s grandmother was one of the group of women who founded the hospital.) "Mother was the treasurer for a period of time," remembered Nordhoff, and regularly would arrive home with envelopes full of coins collected in penny drives. "She would bring them home and we would empty them and roll the money into wrappers. So that was my big entry into finance and into charitable work" (Black, interview 2). 

She was also the president of the Seattle Junior League in the early 1970s, a national organization that aimed, through the membership of women, to train them for community volunteer activities. As treasurer and president she continued to build links with different groups within the broader Seattle community while her children were growing up. "It was the life of a community volunteer and a mother" (Black, interview 2). In 1980, eight women active in the Junior League, including Nancy Nordhoff, founded the Seattle CityClub, an organization open to all that would provide a forum for civic debate and discussion. The context was that many civic organizations, such as the Rotary International, were open to men only. The CityClub went on to be "recognized as one of the region's foremost civic and public affairs organizations" (McRoberts). 

In the meantime, working in the family foundation meant Nordhoff was continually exposed to funding applications from agencies across the board. She was struck by the fact that although the need was often great, many of those applications weren’t. "They were wishy-washy. Indirect. Budgets weren’t presented very well." She set about changing that by sitting down with agencies and helping them strengthen all aspects of their funding applications before they were submitted to the foundation’s board. Among the beneficiaries were Children’s Hospital and the Seattle Art Museum, 5th Avenue Theatre, and a host of smaller organizations providing social services aimed at families and children in particular. 

Pacific Northwest Grantmaker’s Forum  

The foundation work led to Nancy Skinner Nordhoff being invited to join, as a founding member, the board of the Pacific Northwest Grantmaker’s Forum. Her invitation came from businessman Norton Clapp (1906-1995), then a former president of the Weyerhaeuser Corporation. He had also been one of the five investors in the construction of the Space Needle, alongside Nordhoff's brother, Ned Skinner. The Northwest Grantmaker’s Forum, which in 2000 was renamed Philanthropy Northwest, was incorporated on November 23, 1976.  

"I’m sure I was asked because I had money and I didn’t have a [paid] job and I could do the work of the group," Nancy said in 2016 (Black, interview 2). When she joined, the group consisted of both family foundations and corporate groups. 

As the sole woman to serve on the board, she noticed that the foundations that made up the forum, with men in leadership roles, did not want to have a public profile that extended to philanthropic giving. "They wanted a piece of paper that had someone asking them for money, but they didn’t want someone banging on their door" (Black, interview 2). From Nordhoff's perspective, this wasn’t a healthy state of affairs -- someone needed to bridge the gap between foundations that had a responsibility to give money away in a responsible manner and agencies that had a need to spend it. She began to address this by organizing workshops to develop fundraising skills within agencies. She also worked with determination to improve how foundations acted as trustees and assessed applications. 

Other activities beyond the Northwest Grantmaker’s Forum included founding the United Way Volunteer Bureau in the mid-1970s, which coordinated volunteer recruitment for various non-profits.

Burned Out, Hats Off 

As the 1980s got underway, the election of Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) as U.S. president led to the question of whether charitable organizations would meet the needs of the community as the role of government in social service provision was reduced. As president of the Northwest Grantmaker’s Forum, Nancy Skinner Nordhoff asserted that this group would actively seek to help fill that space.  

After 30 years being involved in the community in various philanthropic roles, though, she was feeling, to use her own words, "burned out ... I mean there’s just no doubt ... when you hit that ... it’s just gone. I suppose it's like a marriage gone bad. You know? Everything that had been exciting the day before was nothing now but dreary, and I didn’t want to do it. And I knew if I continued that I didn’t have the energy to do it. Or the interest I suppose." 

It was, she reflected in 2016, a feeling that arrived somewhat suddenly, and that reached its clearest expression in a decision to take a cross-country trip, driving in a van she customized for camping, listening to music, and drinking wine. She hosted a party she called "Hat's Off," invited her friends to say farewell and paint the van, and took to the road.  

During the next five or six weeks she had time to consider the question "Who are you Nancy?" There wasn’t a single, clear answer, but what did crystallize was a realization that she was in a position to help causes she though were important: 

"That was a huge step ... Inherited money, you feel a responsibility [to] who gave it to you. So you feel in a way that you have to do what they would want you to do ... and by getting that off my shoulders -- which I didn’t know ... was there -- I realized that there were resources and that this was a time that I’d cleared the slate and my life was really an open book.  
"And in that next step or two, which probably took six months, I knew there was a divorce ahead of me, so it was going to be a new life, and I took a trip to Whidbey Island" (Black interview 2). 

A New Life -- Hedgebrook

In the spring of 1985, visiting relatives on Whidbey Island, she felt a deep connection to the landscape there, and within a couple of weeks bought a 30-acre farm. Initially, the property seemed ideal for what she needed: a place to live. There was a farmhouse, outbuildings, woodlands, wetlands, and deer trails.

What happened next, though, is difficult for her to explain precisely: "I don’t know where it all came from. People have said, 'You had a vision, you had a dream,' and I said 'No, I had an idea.' And that was it" (Black interview 2). 

That idea was to establish a retreat for women writers, which would come to be called "Hedgebrook." Speaking in 2016, Nordhoff remembered how she was influenced by Tillie Olsen’s book Silences

"...because it really shows where women had been silenced. And I felt that way. I could identify with that, because I was in a kind of: 'This is what you should do Nancy, be a good girl and do it for 50 years,' and then suddenly realizing I could break out of that ... So ... in the eighties when I was 50, I grew up" (Black interview 2).   

What really drew Nordhoff to that particular site was the feel of the place, and its combination of woodlands, wetlands, and pasture. After an initially thinking that she would live there, though, the scale of maintaining the property became more evident. As she pondered how she might build on the realization that she could use her financial resources to build something that was truly important to her, an idea came to life.     

Drawing in part on the inspiration of conversations with her friend, journalist Sheryl Feldman, and from spending time walking that land, Nordhoff decided to found a retreat center for women writers. With an emphasis on diversity and what was later called "radical hospitality," it would be a place where female writers of all creative disciplines could come, spend time together, and work. 

The construction process took three years in all, from the initial purchase of the land in the spring of 1985 until Hedgebrook opened its doors on August 2, 1988. The first writer to visit was Jan D’Arcy, writer, actress, and communications specialist. On that first night, Nancy Skinner Nordhoff made D’Arcy dinner. 

As of 2016 there were six cottages on site, a bathhouse with heated floors and views of the woods, and a VIP house. The farmhouse contains a kitchen, a comfortable living room where writers gather after dinner to share work, an office, library, and communal eating area. 

Women writers from all over the world are invited to apply to Hedgebrook. Each resident lives and works in her own cottage in the woods, which is provided with a wood stove for heat, a small kitchen, writing areas including a windowseat looking into the woods, and a sleeping loft. The residents gather in the farmhouse for dinner -- the chefs prepare delicious dishes, with many of the ingredients grown on the farm. As of 2016, about 1,700 writers have spent time at Hedgebrook. 

Asked about the origins of the idea, Nordhoff emphasizes the impact that her college years had in planting the seed. At Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, "Somehow women's voices got embedded and came out at the right time, 30 years later from when I graduated" (Black, interview 2). Funded by an initial endowment, as of the time of writing in September 2016 the Hedgebrook retreat for women writers is now a fully independent non-profit with 501(c)(3) status.

In 2016 Hedgebrook won the 2016 (Seattle) Mayor's Arts Award for Arts & Innovation.

Life Changes

In tandem with the excitement of establishing Hedgebrook, Nancy Skinner Nordhoff’s personal life underwent significant changes. As a consequence of counseling through Adult Children of Alcoholics, she began to explore the nature of her childhood experiences. 

"I didn’t know anything about feelings because if you live in any kind of addictive family, you hide your feelings, you don’t want to feel them because they’re not good ones. So by the time I realized that the quality of life could be found through feelings I liked that idea" (Black, interview 2). 

Despite efforts to change the nature of their married relationship in light of this realization, Nancy Skinner Nordhoff and Arthur Nordhoff divorced in 1987.

 A Park in Langley

In the years that followed the establishment of Hedgebrook, Nancy Skinner Nordhoff continued to work to advance the philanthropic causes she felt were important, and to contribute to civic life. As her direct involvement with Hedgebrook decreased, she turned her attention to contributing to the south Whidbey community where she had made her home, in the town of Langley. 

The first area of need that caught her eye was a derelict lot in the downtown area. "Why I wanted to make a park, I have no idea, but t seemed like the right thing to do, and I loved the process of community involvement" (Black, interview 2). Nordhoff bought the land and oversaw the construction of the park. 

Goosefoot 

Subsequently, she also started a non-profit called Goosefoot in the Bayview area of South Whidbey, in partnership with a friend who was an experienced land-use attorney. The organization’s purpose was community development and sustainable economic growth.  

The first program at Goosefoot centered on the transfer of cottages that were slated for demolition to members of the community who needed new accommodation, and were in a position to maintain it. So for example, if an individual or family was living in substandard housing, they could receive a new structure -- in the form of one of the cottages -- which would be physically moved to their existing property. From that point on, the family was responsible for its installation and maintenance. The possession of land and the ability to get a mortgage were critical elements in determining the eligibility of recipients. There were 13 houses that were transferred under the program "and then we ran out of people with land" (Interview 2). 

One of the first buildings Goosefoot purchased was called The Cash Store. It was one of three main structures built in the early days of Bayview, the others being the Bayview Community Hall and an elementary school. The Cash Store was a feed store, hardware, and mercantile store. By 1999 the building housed a gallery and a restaurant, but was in need of structural repair when Goosefoot stepped in and bought it.  

Renovating the store involved removing the original structure and rebuilding it using as much salvaged material from the original building as possible, while adding other recycled materials. It’s now a major retail center in the area, and has grown into a pivotal part of the community. 

During the economic downturn, Goosefoot acquired a mall development that contained a declining grocery store, a hardware store, and several other retail outlets. After an initial period of losses during to the great recession, the grocery store is now making a steady, regular profit, which is ploughed back into the work of Goosefoot’s not-for-profit operations. The store is called "The Goose."

Nancy Skinner Nordhoff has also been instrumental in supporting The Whidbey Institute, which caters to a range of community needs on the island.

Accolades and Honors

Nancy Skinner Nordhoff was awarded an honorary degree from Mount Holyoke College in 2004. She was an honoree of the National Women’s History Project in 2006, and in 2009 was named The Outstanding Philanthropist by the Association of Fundraising Professionals. 

The Nancy Nordhoff Civic Leadership Award is awarded annually by the Seattle CityClub, of which she is one of the eight women founders. In 2014 The Seattle Storm awarded Nancy Skinner Nordhoff the Inspiring Women award. In 2016 Hedgebrook, with Nancy Nordhoff prominently recognized, received the Seattle Mayor's Art's Award for Art & Innovation.

She lives in Langley, on Whidbey Island, with her wife, Lynn Hays (b. 1944), whom she met 28 years ago, during the early days of Hedgebrook. They married in 2014.


Sources:

Dominic Black interview no. 1 with Nancy Skinner Nordhoff, September 6, 2016, in possession of Historylink, Seattle; Dominic Black interview no. 2 with Nancy Skinner Nordhoff, September 21, 2016 in possession of Historylink; Nancy Skinner Nordhoff, email to Dominic Black, November 2, 2016, in possession of Dominic Black, Seattle; Nancy Bartley, "Sally Skinner Behnke, 90, Seattle philanthropist, Dies,” The Seattle Times, December 19, 2013 (http://www.seattletimes.com); Elizabeth Austen, “Back to Hedgebrook,” blog entry (https://elizabethausten.wordpress.com/2011/08/23/back-to-hedgebrook/) accessed October 28, 2016, Used by permission of the author, email in possession of Dominic Black, Seattle; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, Skinner, Ned (1920-1988) and Kayla (1919-2004) (by David Wilma), Children’s Orthopedic Hospital (by Mildred Andrews), Clapp, Norton (1906-1995) (by Cassandra Tate) http://www.historylink.org (accessed October 28, 2016); Joe Trimble, "Don Larsen Pitches First Perfect Game in World Series History in 1956 Game Against the Brooklyn Dodgers," New York Daily News, October 9, 1956, reprinted October 7, 2015 (http://www.nydailynews.com/sports/baseball/yankees/larsen-plays-perfect-game-world-series-1956-article-1.2382988); National Women’s History Project, "2006 honorees," (http://www.nwhp.org/womens-history-month/past-womens-history-months/2006-honorees/); Nick Acocella, "Larsen Had One Perfect Day," ESPN Classic, Sportscentury Bigoraphy (http://www.espn.com/classic/biography/s/Larsen_Don.html); Valerie Easton, "Nancy Skinner Nordhoff -- With Hands Fully On, She Builds Community Creatively," The Seattle Times, May 13, 2007 (http://www.seattletimes.com); Promotional video for Philanthropy Northwest fundraiser in possession of Dominic Black, provided courtesy Philanthropy Northwest; Port Blakely website accessed November 2016 (http://www.portblakely.com/our-story/history); "About Us," Hedgebrook website ” accessed October 28, 2016 (http://www.hedgebrook.org/); Harolynne Bobis, email to Dominic Black, November 4, 2016, in possession of Dominic Black, Seattle;" Ursula K. LeGuin website accessed November 4, 2016 (http://www.ursulakleguin.com); Ruth Ozeki website accessed November 4, 2016 (http://www.ruthozeki.com); Tillie Olsen website accessed November 4, 2016 (http://www.tillieolsen.net); "Naomi Shihab-Nye," Poetry Foundation website accessed November 4, 2016 (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/naomi-shihab-nye); "Nancy Skinner Nordhoff, Mount Holyoke College website accessed November 1, 2016 (https://www.mtholyoke.edu/175/gallery/nancy-skinner-nordhoff); HistoryLink.org, the Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "CityClub (Seattle)" (by Patrick McRoberts), http://www.historylink.org/ accessed November 8, 2016.


Related Topics:   Biographies | Women's History | Writers & Poets

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