A life of service

Estate gift highlights alumnus’ commitment to others

periodiCALS, Vol. 7, Issue 2, 2017

Russ Skelton Jr. ‘54 and Bonnie Renzi in Brisbane, Australia. Photo provided.

Russ M. Skelton Jr. ’54 lived a life of travel, adventure and generosity. And he credited Cornell CALS with getting him started on his way.

“He was always proud to be a graduate of Cornell,” said Bonnie Renzi, Skelton’s partner for his last 16 years. “His education gave him the advantages and the knowledge he needed to move forward in his life. For that he was very grateful.”

Even as a child, Skelton knew how to stay busy. He collected stamps, had a paper route, worked at a soda fountain and spent his summers at his grandparents’ 64-acre farm in Michigan. It was there, while hoeing and weeding and cleaning the chicken coops, that Skelton’s interest in agriculture first bloomed.

When he visited Cornell’s campus as a prospective student, the first person he met was the chair of the agriculture department. By then Skelton had already decided he wanted to learn more about the business of farming. At the time the agriculture department was just beginning to develop an agricultural business program, and Skelton was among the first handful of students enrolled in the new curriculum. 

That business education inspired him to pursue banking, a career that spanned more than 40 years before he retired in 1996 as senior vice president of Wells Fargo. But immediately following his graduation from Cornell, he embarked upon a parallel career with the U.S. Army. Skelton served seven years on active duty and an additional 31 years in the reserves. He often taught military tactics at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College in Leavenworth, Kansas, advancing to the rank of full colonel. 

In July he was buried in Arlington Cemetery with full military honors.

Military life instilled a great love of adventure and travel in Skelton and that  took him to all seven continents and every port a cruise ship could reach. He saw the Taj Mahal, the Sydney Opera House and Milford Sound in New Zealand. In 2001 he met his partner, Bonnie, on a cruise ship bound for the Panama Canal, and together they spent their time roaming the world, cruising the Yangtze River and climbing the Great Wall of China.  

Ever a stickler for details, Skelton kept track of every trip.  By his tally he took 140 vacation cruises over a total of 2,146 days. 

During all that time, however, he never let his love of travel get in the way of his military service. One of Skelton’s cruises was interrupted when the army tracked him down on the ship because they needed his help for an assignment. His dedication to service was a crucial part of Skelton’s character. Whether it meant helping a homeless veteran find housing and employment, or covering the cost of putting a neighbor with dementia into a nursing home, Skelton was always ready to assist people in need.

So it’s not surprising that he left behind a generous $1.1 million estate gift for the college to endow both a fund that supports the advancement of digital agriculture and a dean’s discretionary fund.

“He wanted his money to go to a worthy cause that might make a difference in future generations’ lives,” Bonnie said. “And he knew donating to CALS, with all its research, might make a difference whether future generations eat well or not.”