HOUR WITH: Skidd tries to bring peace, closure to those left behind
By JOHN H. PALMER
Many of us were born with the help of doctors and nurses devoted to bringing us into the world.
One Norwalker, however, has devoted his life to helping people leave the world with respect and dignity, while trying to bring peace and a sense of closure to those they leave behind.
For more than 35 years, Bill Skidd Sr. has been the owner and director of Collins Funeral Home on East Avenue, and has carried on a family tradition that has lasted almost as long as Norwalk itself.
"There's a certain satisfaction in helping people," Skidd said. "A cop comes into people's lives when there's a problem and you solve it. Like that, we come into people's lives when there's a tragedy and help solve it."
At 59, Skidd has a quiet, caring demeanor that can only come from years of dealing with the unfortunate, but inevitable, details of the end of people's lives. Hs business is one that few like to talk about -- he's the one to deal not only with arranging the funeral, but preparing bodies for services and dealing with the needs of grieving family members.
One would think that to do such a job, it would require someone with a hard personality, maybe someone with almost a fascination of the afterlife to deal with what is doubtless a stressful and emotional career. Not Skidd, who said it's his strong Catholic faith and a respect for life that has kept him in the business for so long. He's a walking history book, and will tell you lots about Norwalk in the old days. He's also got a quippy sense of humor, and likes to quote people like actor Spencer Tracy and Mark Twain. Dressed in a nice blue suit and a conservative red and blue tie, he greets like you're his long lost friend and makes you feel immediately comfortable.
"If you have a fascination with death other than the normal and healthy respect for it, you should stay out of this business," he said. "You don't want to think about it and you shouldn't - you should be interested in living and living well. But no one passes through here alive."
In fact, while Skidd definitely has to deal with people who have died, some in tragic ways, he said his job is more about dealing with the living than with the dead. Bringing comfort to those who are grieving brings him solace, he says. While you could ask him what's the worst he's seen, he chooses to talk about the best he's seen in people.
He recalled an older lady standing by her father's casket during one wake that he directed. After saying a prayer, she said "Pop, I gotta go. The kids need me. I'll see ya soon." Seeing something like that he calls "beautiful," and heartwarming.
"Some of them you keep in your heart," he said. "There's great beauty in that. I guess it's called love."
Still, there are tough days as well. Anytime a child is involved or someone is taken away too suddenly, it's something he has a hard time with but has to deal with.
"There's a lot of sadness and tragedy, seeing people in pain," he said. "If you ever get used to seeing someone lose someone after a long life, you're not human. You try not to take it with you, but have a healthy outlook on life as a whole."
Skidd doesn't have a "normal" day. As a funeral director, he is constantly on call, with phone lines that can reach him 24 hours a day. His typical day involves getting up around 6 a.m. for coffee and papers with his wife, Margo, who he affectionately calls "Mommy." They met as teenagers at Central Catholic High School and have been together ever since and parented 12 children together. His son Billy, 36, already works with him at the funeral home, and he hopes will take over the business some day.
"It's nice to be able to sit back and work with some of my kids," he said. "I've been a good steward, I hope."
He goes to St. Mary's Church for daily mass before his day even begins. Then it's off to the office for bookkeeping and maintenance duties, unless there's a funeral that day to direct. Most days don't end until well after 8 p.m., since that's when wakes are often held.
"It's a lot of time and being on call," he said. "As a kid I can remember the phone ringing at all times of day. You're free, but you're not. You have the beeper attached to you."
Skidd remembers his childhood well, because he grew up in the funeral business. His family has been in the funeral business since 1898, when A.J. Collins, his great uncle and a businessman who owned several buildings in South Norwalk decided to open a furniture store on North Main Street.
Things were much different back then. In the late 19th century, it was customary for furniture stores to also be in the funeral business, since they were the ones who built the caskets from wood when someone died, as well as arranging the service and getting the plot and headstone. In addition, most wakes were held at the family's home rather than at a funeral facility. Today, funerals are traditionally held in a funeral home facility, and can cost more than $10,000 depending on what services are arranged.
His grandfather, William M. Skidd, became the first of four generations of Skidds in the funeral business when he joined Collins to start Collins Funeral Home.
In the 1940s, the business was expanded and a second funeral home, built on Flax Hill Road, was run by Skidd. In 1951, when Collins passed away, he took over as owner. He then passed the business on to his son, William M. Skidd and his wife Jeannette Jung in 1958. In 1964 the funeral home on Flax Hill was bulldozed to make room for the South Norwalk renovation, and the family continued to run the business out of the current location on East Avenue.
"Running a funeral home usually passed down, as it is expensive and a big investment in time," Skidd said, explaining why funeral homes are generally tight-knit family businesses. "It's a big gamble that you will turn a profit."
While growing up, he always assumed he would take over ownership of the funeral home; it wasn't until November of 1970 when it became clear. His father died of terminal cancer and he was the next Skidd in line. His mother, who had a funeral director's license, kept the business running until he could get his license.
While Skidd was still a high school student, he would commute in the evenings to New York City to attend the American Academy McAllister Institute of Funeral Service. There he learned about science and anatomy, as well as psychology, laws, and health ordinances governing funeral homes. And yes, he learned all about embalming. Today, he is a licensed embalmer.
His life isn't all about the funeral home. Born in 1950, he went to Old Marvin School on Gregory Boulevard for elementary school, and then on to St. Luke's School in New Canaan. He graduated Central Catholic in 1968 before getting a liberal arts degree at UCONN in Stamford.
He's an avid gardener and a woodworker, and said he and his wife like to build toys for their children that teach catechism, including a wooden Noah's Ark and a topographical map of the Holy Land. His big love is the water, and he has been a boater since he was little. A member of the South Norwalk Boat Club since 1974, he can be seen cruising the Norwalk Islands in his 34-foot cruiser.
"I play out there every month of the year," he said. "It's beautiful out there in the winter."