Ernst Laughlin Skeel was born on December 12, 1881, in Cleveland, Ohio, to Prentice M. and Clara Laughlin Skeel. As a boy, he contributed to the family finances by working variously as a newspaper boy, ice-wagon driver, and mill worker.
Skeel was a 1903 graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University, where he starred in baseball, basketball, football, and track. In football he was a teammate of Branch Rickey (1881-1965), who became a legendary baseball Hall of Famer, most notably for breaking baseball's color barrier.
He earned his law degree in 1906 at Western Reserve University (later renamed Case Western Reserve University) in Cleveland. He worked his way through law school as a football coach at the College of Wooster, a small liberal arts school in Wooster, Ohio. There he met Hazel K. Emery, a student from the western Ohio farm town of Kenton who was majoring in languages, and they married on December 30, 1908. Three children would be born to them: Marguerite S., Willard E., and Dorothy S. Hazel Skeel later said that "the most outstanding thing she did in college was marry the football coach" (The Seattle Times). She herself, however, would go on to an extremely active civic and social life in Seattle -- with the Washington Athletic Club, Sunset Club, Women's University Club, Seattle Art Museum, and the Laurelhurst Orthopedic Guild, among other groups.
Northwest Land of Opportunity
Skeel practiced law briefly in Ohio before migrating to Seattle in 1907, where he associated himself with a series of partnerships, specializing in business and administrative law. In one of his major victories, he successfully defended Kilbourne & Clark Mfg. Co., a pioneer Seattle electrical manufacturing firm, in a series of radio transformer patent infringement suits brought by the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Co.
The nascent wireless radio industry was in high ferment after the turn of the century, and competition was fierce, with much squabbling over patents rights. Marconi first sued Kilbourne & Clark in August 1915, but the lawsuit expanded as it passed through lower courts, the U.S. Navy became involved, and it morphed into a bigger suit. On June 21, 1943, the U.S. Supreme Court finally ruled the Marconi patent claims invalid (in Marconi Wireless Telegraph Co. of America v. United States).
By this time Kilbourne & Clark had long since -- back in 1925 -- gone bankrupt. Skeel, the company's counsel, "took as part of his payment all the patents and patent rights held at that time" (R. Palmer). Although he later sold the patent rights to R. Palmer, this was not an isolated business venture for Skeel. At various times, he was an officer and/or director of more than a dozen companies. He became president of Grays Harbor Lines in 1936, and served as an officer of Puget Sound Bridge and Dredging Co., Seattle Trust and Savings Bank, Lowman & Hanford Co., Olympic Steamship Co., Washington Title Insurance Co., and Olympia Brewing Co., among others. Even so, early in his Seattle career, he found time to maintain his sports connection by officiating at intercollegiate games.
Skeel tirelessly promoted development -- of Seattle, the suburbs, the Columbia River Basin, and the Alaska trade. He was president of the Pacific Northwest Trade Association and a director of the Institute of Pacific Relations (IPR), a business-academic organization founded in the early 1930s. Also involved with IPR were Dr. Raymond B. Allen (1902-1986), then president of the University of Washington, and Seattle furrier Mike Dederer (1905-1995), both Chamber of Commerce stalwarts and also recipients of the First Citizen award. (The Institute of Pacific Relations became one of the organizations investigated by a U.S. Senate committee for possible Communist infiltration during the postwar Red Scare, ironically so since several members held pro-McCarthy views.)
Skeel also was active in Rotary. He was a founder of the Seattle club in 1909, helped establish clubs elsewhere in the state and in Alaska, served as president of the Seattle club in 1914, and finally as Northwest District Governor. "Ernie Skeel was one of the early leaders in the district, and much of the early Constitution and By-Laws of Rotary International was written by him" (Rotary history).
Skeel's civic bandwidth was broad. He was president of the Municipal League of Seattle in 1931 and chairman of the Commercial Club in 1946. He headed the Seattle Chamber of Commerce in 1947-1948, expanding its reach. That reach expanded even further in 1949, when the U.S. Air Force was pressing Boeing to transfer its bomber production to its plant in Wichita, Kansas. The chamber formed a Save Boeing Committee, with Skeel as chairman, which quickly grew into a wider community effort called the Keep Boeing-Defend Seattle Committee. "The plan generated enormous interest that stretched across class lines ... including organized labor and the chamber of commerce" (Kirkendall). The successful drive also had the support of the state's congressional powers: Sen. Warren Magnuson (1904-1989) and Reps. Henry M. Jackson (1912-1983) and Hugh Mitchell (1907-1996).
Honored by the Community
The Seattle Chamber of Commerce in 1952 created a new conference center, the Senior Council Room, in Skeel's honor, a move lauded in a Seattle Times editorial as "a permanent memorial to one of the most active and inspiring leaders in [the chamber's] long history."
Skeel was a zealous booster, no question, and not afraid to speak his mind. He made that clear on January 20, 1949, at the Seattle Real Estate Board (later Seattle-King County Association of Realtors) ceremony honoring him as its First Citizen for 1948. In his acceptance speech, he lauded the group "for the reason that the 40-mil tax limit law sponsored by you has forced economy in government and minimized waste." The 40-mill limit on property taxes in Washington state had been a divisive liberal-conservative issue since 1924.
Skeel urged the region to "support all industries; free our waterfront of Harry Bridges ... and strive for full development and sound administration of the irrigation, reclamation and power resources of the Columbia Valley" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer). Harry Bridges (1901-1990), founder of the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union, was one of the most powerful labor leaders on the West Coast.
Skeel also was a member of the Rainier Club, Seattle Golf and Country Club, Masons and Woodmen of the World. He died on April 14, 1952, after a long illness, at the age of 70. Hazel Emery Skeel died on November 12, 1969, at the age of 84.