In 1919, when Sydney Skoler was born, women got the right to vote, Prohibition went into effect, and Charlie Chaplin was film’s big star. He was a teenager during the Great Depression, when he worked at his father’s business and attended Boston University. As he finished his studies at BU, he was drafted into the Army to serve in World War II. All that before Skoler turned 25.
BU Today spoke with the Milton centenarian, who gets around with a walker and recalls everything from cranking up the family Victrola as a boy to toting a cell phone at age 93. A good tennis game (he played competitively until his mid-90s), a healthy diet, and a gentle demeanor have helped him navigate a long and fulfilling life.
Skoler (Questrom’40, LAW’42) commuted to BU’s College of Business Administration (today the Questrom School of Business) just six years after it was created. He attended because his brother went, he says, taking the train from his family’s hometown of Quincy. After arriving at South Station, he would walk up Essex Street to get to CBA, then at 525 Boylston Street in Copley Square.
Skoler enrolled in a five-year business and law program, when the School of Law was at Ashburton Place, next to the State House. There was one woman and no students of color in his 1942 class of 50.
“BU tuition cost $325 for the year. Three hundred twenty-five bucks!”
Skoler and his older brother, David, were the first in their Russian immigrant family to attend college. Skoler completed his law degree at BU in 1942, just months after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. He was drafted into the Army and had to leave for training before Commencement.
“I was disappointed they called me in two days before graduation. It was kind of silly.”
David Skoler (Questrom’37) also graduated from BU with a business degree, and was drafted into the Army as well. During the Battle of the Bulge, David was captured and was a prisoner of war for several months before he returned to Massachusetts. (He died at age 74.)
Sydney Skoler remained stateside during the war, working in military intelligence.
“Fortunately, I didn’t have to point a gun at another human being, which I was happy about.”
He went for military training at Fort Devens and was allowed to return to Boston to be sworn in by the Boston Bar Association. He says he briefly considered a career in foreign relations.
“I thought I might have the temperament to help calm down some of the nitwits that are in this world.”
Skoler never practiced law, after the war going into his father’s dry goods business in South Quincy instead, which later grew into a wholesale business selling clothing and equipment to hospitals and institutions. A lifelong bachelor, he had several long-term relationships. He says he regrets not having children, though not necessarily never marrying.
“They claim that married men live longer than bachelors. I think it only seems longer.”
His advice for students today is simple.
“Hit the books.”
Skoler still recalls his favorite law professor, Frank Simpson (LAW1903), who taught at LAW more than 75 years ago. Skoler says Simpson made a lasting impression because he wasn’t preachy, and he combined intelligence with humility.
“He used to say the phrase, ‘As I understand the law,’ which showed he was thoughtful. I’ll never forget him. He was great.”
Skoler is a fan of Jeopardy! and watches the news, switching back and forth between CNN and Fox. He says he’ll never forget the teacher who gave him a compliment at a young age, saying that he wears his wisdom lightly.
“If you can’t laugh, you’re in trouble. I advise people when they’re washing up in the morning, take a look in the mirror and laugh at yourself. The rest is easy. Too many people think they’re complete and that they have it all in the palm of their hand. There’s something beyond us, that’s driving us. In addition to cheeseburgers.”
Megan Woolhouse can be reached at [email protected]