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Published: Saturday, 11/10/2001

Director expanded and improved zoo in 27 years at helm

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Philip C. Skeldon, whose 27-year tenure as director of the Toledo Zoo oversaw the addition of numerous species to the collection and the building of the zoo's first habitat-like exhibits, died yesterday in his Springfield Township home. He was 79.

Relatives said Mr. Skeldon apparently suffered a heart attack after returning home from routine daily visits to Medical College of Ohio Hospitals, where he was a volunteer chaplain, and to his sister, Mary.

As the zoo's first paid director, Mr. Skeldon followed a trail blazed by his father, Frank Skeldon, who - along with being the business editor of The Blade - headed the zoo on a volunteer basis from 1923 until his death in 1948.

As a child, Philip Skeldon developed a lifelong fondness for animals and, by age 8, was leading ponies around the zoo's popular pony ring. His family lived on Shadowlawn Drive, across the street from the zoo.

A four-year hitch in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II and subsequent employment with a local oil company interrupted Mr. Skeldon's association with the zoo.

But he returned as a keeper in 1950 and two years later was named business manager. On Oct. 6, 1953, he became director, succeeding Lou Klewer, outdoors editor of The Blade, who had been volunteer interim director since 1950.

Under Mr. Skeldon's leadership, the zoo obtained its first gorillas, bred gorillas and orangutans for the first time, and became the first zoo in North America to breed cheetahs.

The children's zoo, Kodiak and polar bear grottoes, exotic waterfowl pools, and numerous other exhibits were created during Mr. Skeldon's administration.

“The zoo is a great place today because of Phil Skeldon and his dad,” said Clifford Quinn, a one-time co-worker of the elder Mr. Skeldon at The Blade. “He was one of the most decent guys you'd ever want to know. He ran a beautiful zoo, and he ran it on a shoestring.”

In those days, the zoo was an agency of the city of Toledo, and it had to compete with other city departments for funds. Five months after becoming director, Mr. Skeldon brought a seven-foot snake with him to a city council meeting to persuade the city fathers, who faced a $75,000 budget deficit, to add a full-time keeper and a summertime nurse to the zoo's payroll.

When Mr. Skeldon became president of the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums in 1958, he was the youngest person ever to hold that title. He also was a member of the International Union of Directors of Zoological Gardens, which represented 52 members in 26 countries.

He traveled overseas frequently to scout for animals to bring back to the zoo. In 1960, he led a Blade-sponsored trip to South America, from which he returned with numerous snakes, lizards, turtles, monkeys, exotic birds, and other creatures, including a 250-pound manatee sea cow for the zoo aquarium.

Other travel destinations included southern Africa, Australia, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and New Guinea.

Running the zoo “was an avocation as well as a profession,” said his son, Thomas Skeldon, the Lucas County dog warden. Thomas Skeldon said his father passed his love for animals along to his children, as well as a strong sense of family devotion.

“He was a good friend and a good mentor. He made the transition for me very easy, and he was very supportive,” said Bill Dennler, who has been the zoo's director since Mr. Skeldon retired Dec. 31, 1980, and who had been hired five years earlier as curator of reptiles.

Mr. Dennler said it was not uncommon for Mr. Skeldon to be at the zoo seven days a week.

“He used to hang out in the reptile house all the time. [The zoo] was an absolute passion for him,” Mr. Dennler said.

After his retirement, Mr. Skeldon embarked on a second career as a deacon at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church, where he was a parishioner. He held that title for about 15 years, relatives said.

Mr. Skeldon and his five brothers - Ned, James, John, Joseph, and Frank, Jr. - all served in the U.S. military during World War II. Tom Skeldon said his father was the only one of the six not to become an officer, but insisted that was because he was the only Marine and advancing in the Corps was more difficult. Mr. Skeldon was discharged in 1946 as a sergeant.

He was with the landing forces at Saipan, Tinian, and Okinawa and was a member of the first deployment into Nagasaki, Japan, the second city struck by an atomic bomb.

At Saipan, he was shot in the forehead, but the bullet glanced away and went through his helmet. Within four days he was back in action and, in a letter home, thanked his mother for “giving me a stout skull.”

The Nagasaki assignment left Mr. Skeldon with radiation burns and, later, skin cancer - along with vivid memories of the physical and human toll.

“He was very, very proud of being a Marine and proud of his country and his hometown. But the sheer brutality of [the bombing] left a mark,” Tom Skeldon said.

Surviving are his wife, Bernadine Skeldon; sons, Thomas, Martin, Barry, Steve, Peter, Jeffery, and Philip; daughters, Claudia Dusseau, Connie Barden, Kim Skeldon, and Monica Verhoff; sister, Mary Skeldon; 29 grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his brothers and sister, Delana.

Mr. Skeldon's body has been donated to the Medical College of Ohio.

A memorial Mass will be said at 11 a.m. Monday in Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church. The family will receive relatives and friends at the church beginning at 10 a.m. Monday. A reception at the Church will follow the service.

The family requests tributes to Claver House soup kitchen or the Our Lady of Perpetual Help building fund.


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