Oscar D. Skelton, Canadian political economist and first Green Foundation Lecturer
“From the time of his graduation, the welfare of Westminster College was one of the deepest concerns of his life. For these reasons, it seems fitting that his name shall be had in memory of the College of his great love.”
With those words, Eleanor I. Green gave the College a $10,000 gift (equivalent to $174,950 today) on November 10, 1936, to establish the John Findley Green Foundation lecture in memory of her husband, a St. Louis attorney who graduated from Westminster in 1884 and was a member of the Board of Trustees for 30 years. In 1930, Green was presented with an honorary degree from the College.
Mrs. Green described the lecturers to be sought and the topic of their addresses in great detail. Speakers were to be of national or international reputation and their lectures were to promote “a better understanding of economic and social problems which are international in concern and the development of economic principles under changing conditions.” She also specified “for breadth of view, it is desired that the Board shall select the lecturer from some other section of the country, or from some other country, and from time to time opposing points of view and conflicting theories shall be presented, in so far as that is possible.”
Little did Mrs. Green know that the lecture series she envisioned would draw, as President Perry stated at the 2017 Green Foundation Lecture by U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, “Presidents and Prime Ministers, advocates and ambassadors, cabinet members and corporate CEO’s,” and give the world one of the greatest addresses in its history — “Sinews of Peace” by Sir Winston Churchill.
For the inaugural lecture, Mrs. Green selected Oscar D. Skelton, a renowned scholar of political economics whose career had reached its zenith as Under-Secretary of State for External Affairs in the Canadian government, to speak. She wrote to him: “The ‘Middle West’ needs to guard against provincialism, and I feel that it would be most appropriate that you initiate the memorial series.”
Although his huge responsibilities at work delayed his response, Skelton finally agreed to do the lecture, even though he only had a little less than two months to prepare. His subject was a look at the achievements and failures of his generation in the first third of the 20th century.
On March 18-19, 1937, Skelton delivered “Our Generation: Its Gains and Losses,” a series of three lectures on campus. Although his speaking voice was hampered by “the need to suck cough drops for a persistent cold,” Skelton’s lectures were well received by a “large and enthusiastic audience, averaging over six hundred persons and consisting of the student body of Westminster College, citizens of Fulton, members of the Board of Trustees, and many other friends of the college.” He delivered the first lecture on the morning of the 18th from the podium Churchill would later use for his famous speech in 1946, and the lecture was followed by a luncheon Westminster President Franc L. McCluer gave for members of the college staff and friends. Then Skelton gave his second lecture that evening with a reception following for faculty and friends at the Fulton Country Club. The final lecture was delivered the next morning.
In his lectures he discussed what effects the industrial changes of the 19th century and the First World War had in shaping the complex world of the time. Many of his topics were just as timely today as they were in 1937 — the benefits and detriments of constantly changing technology for the American workforce, the divisiveness and corruption of politics, an international vs. an isolationist approach to foreign policy, and the concentration of wealth and corporate control that had created the plight of the American worker. He predicted accurately that the “American frontiers of the future will be cultural, not geographic.” However, to hear someone today talk about the marvels of “television coming over the horizon” and the ability to “fly around the world in seven days” would elicit chuckles today. Yet in spite of America’s challenges, he concluded with a thought that predates Churchill’s same observation: “The best argument for democracy is the experience of alternatives to democracy.”
He was also wise enough to put his lectures in the proper perspective with his introduction. Skelton observed: “It is difficult to look at our own time objectively. Every age has a tendency to exaggerate its achievements and magnify its troubles, to regard itself as the crown and climax of history.”
Response to the lectures was extremely positive. Reports of the time state: “The genuine interest in the matter of the lectures was plainly evidenced in the lively discussion by students returning to their classrooms. Many expressions of appreciation were received at the college from the general public.” In fact, the response was so positive that the University of Chicago Press expressed interest in publishing the lectures and began a relationship with Westminster which resulted in all the pre-World War II lectures appearing as books in print that the general public could purchase.
Upon his return to Ottawa, Skelton was given only a month to turn the lectures into a book for University of Chicago Press, a challenge since he was also preparing for the 1937 Imperial Conference.
Westminster was effusive in its praise of the new lecture series. In The Westminster Alumnus, the statement was made: “Westminster men all loved John F. Green and they are happy that his devoted wife has made it possible for his memory to be kept forever before the coming generations of the College … The father here took his degree; two sons followed his footsteps; now the wife and mother immortalizes him by this timely gift…’He rests from his labors, but his works do follow him … The subjects chosen for the lectures are most timely and the influence of these discussions cannot but powerfully affect young men, destined to play no small part in the state and nation.”
Thus began a tradition that would help the small liberal arts college of Westminster find its place in history as Churchill’s famous “Iron Curtain” speech elevated the significance of the lecture series to worldwide attention.