Four Encounters With H. Gordon Skilling

By Josef Čermák

I don’t recall when I met Gordon for the first time. Actually, I feel that I sort of knew him always.


It must have been around the time Zdena and Josef Škvorecky arrived in Canada, because I remember how deeply Gordon was involved in the establishment of 68Publishers (Sixty-Eight Publishers), the institution which started with nothing and was to play such an immense role in the survival of the Czech literature during the 40 years of the Communist rule in Czechoslovakia. My main involvement was as a lawyer doing the legal work in connection with the incorporation of the charitable corporation which received its charter in 1972 and during its existence published more than 220 titles, after the manuscripts of many of them were smuggled from Czechoslovakia. Its incorporators and first directors were H.Gordon Skilling, Gleb Žekulin, Michael Schomberg (all three professors at the University of Toronto) and myself. H. Gordon Skilling was elected Chairman of the board, a position he held until the Škvoreckys surrendered the charter of 68 Publishers in 1995. Gordon’s role in the life of this unique publishing house, and particularly in the weeks prior to its incorporation, was of vital importance.

Lunch with Professors Kathryn Feuer and Gordon Skilling

Again, I am not sure of the date. It was either at the end of 1966 or at the beginning of 1967. I attended the lunch as a spokesman for the Czechoslovak Association of Canada. A decision was taken at that lunch to introduce a Czech and Slovak Languages and Literatures Program at the University of Toronto. The university moved quickly: By letter, dated March 21, 1967 the then President of the University of Toronto, Claude Bissell, advised me that the Board of Governors accepted “with great pleasure” our offer of a donation “to be paid over a three-year period, towards the salary of a professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature who will be responsible for teaching a course or courses in Czech and Slovak Literature...The university agrees to continue the course in Czech and Slovak Literature for a minimum of three years after 1970. After 1973 it is the intention of the University that the course be continued indefinitely unless lack of students or similar unpredictable reasons make it impossible to do so...” To my knowledge, no lack of students or other unpredictable event has occurred and the course (or rather courses) taught by Professor Veronica Ambroš are doing well. Again, Professor Skilling’s inspiration was an indispensable ingredient in the success of this venture.

Celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the foundation of Czechoslovakia

The main event of these celebrations was a seminar at the University of Toronto entitled “Czechoslovakia – 1918 to 1988. Seven Decades form Independence”. The seminar was organized by Professor Skilling, and was attended by leading scholars from almost twenty universities, including Stanley B. Winters from the New Jersey Institute of Technology; Gregory F. Campbell from Cartage College, Wisconsin; Andrew Rossos, Peter Brock, Paul R. Magosci, Richard Day, Dušan Pokorný; Scott Eddie, Gleb Žekulin and Josef Škvorecký from the University of Toronto; Walter Ullmann from Syracuse University; Piotr S. Wandycz from Yale University; Edita Bosak from Memorial University, Newfoundland; Ronald M. Smelser from the University of Utah; Gary Cohan from Oklahoma University; Radomír V. Luža from Tulane University; Yeshayahu A. Jelinek from Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Israel; Roman Szporluk from University of Michigan; Frederick Barnard from the Univrsity of Western Ontario; Joseph Rothshild from Columbia University; Radovan Selucký from Carleton University; Ján Adam from the University of Calgary; Igor Hájek from Glasgow University; and Markéta Goetz-Stankiewicz from the University of British Columbia. Also participating were George J. Kovtun, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., Vilém Prečan, Documentation Centre for the Promotion of Independent Czechoslovak Literature, German Federal Republic. A reception was held at the Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library, University of Toronto, where Luba Fraštacký arranged an exhibition of the Special Collection od the Petlice and other independent literature. Inspired by this conference were three other events: a concert, which was my responsibility, featuring pianist Antonín Kubálek, composer Oskar Morawetz, Slovak sopranos Maria Mattei and her daughter , Nina Mattei, cellist Vít Fiala and Dagmar Rydlo. The guest speakers were Chaviva Hošek (then a member of the Ontario Government), Věra Fraštacký and one of the last living Russian Legionnaires, Major Rudolf Hasek. A major part of the celebrations was a five-part CBC Radio program entitled The Human Face, written by John Reeves. Reeves became fascinated with Czechoslovakia in 1968 at the time of Prague Spring: People often ask me why I, a native Canadian with no Czech background, have this prolonged interest in Czechoslovakia. What was going on there was in my view – and in the view of many – as important a movement as the Reformation had been in the medieval period. Reeves program was broadcast from October 24 to October 28, 1988. Finally, as part of the celebrations, the Nové divadlo (New Theatre) premiered, in Czech, Václav Havel’s play The Temptation (Pokoušení). These celebrations were the most significant action related to Czechoslovakia I witnessed in Canada in the last more than 60 years, and Professor Skilling played the central role. I like to recall one incident which occurred at the seminar. At one session I said that I agreed with one of the speakers even though his father sued me for libel because of editorials I wrote about his activities during the war. My remarks were clearly something one doesn’t do at an academic gathering and many of those present were displeased. Not Gordon. In fact I still see his amused, perhaps even mischievous smile: he didn’t like the Nazis...

Václav Havel visits Toronto

Havel ’s visit on February 19, 1990 was captured on a video, showing his arrival at the Convocation Hall of the University of Toronto, and the formal welcoming remarks delivered by Havel’s good friend, Professor Skilling. The visit was covered in considerable detail by Josef Klíma in several issues of the Prague weekly, Reflex, particularly in the issue dated June 11, 1991. I remember several meetings and telephone conferences with Gordon, but particularly the meeting at one the offices of the Ontario Government in Toronto, dealing with the program and security issues. It was a fairly large meeting which included representatives of the Government of Canada, the Government of Ontario, the City of Toronto, the RCMP, the Toronto police,

the Czech and Slovak Association of Canada (represented by Mr. Jiří Corn) and others. To me the two most important people present were a beautiful and obviously highly cultured lady who represented the Government of Ontario (I learned only some days later that the lady was a sister of the man who sued me for libel), and Professor H. Gordon Skilling, who represented the University of Toronto. Gordon simply – by the force of his personality – dominated the meeting. To the extent that when he nominated me to moderate the meeting with Havel at the Convocation Hall, where the president of Czechoslovakia was to receive an honorary degree of law (not from the University of Toronto, but the other Toronto university, York University) and deliver a major speech to the Czechoslovak exiles, there were no other nominations. So I must thank Gordon (who never mentioned to me that he was going to nominate me) for the privilege of witnessing – (as I see it) one step on the road to the division of Czechoslovakia. But whatever the result of Havel’s visit to the Convocation Hall, Gordon planned to enhance the reputation of an old friend, one he managed to visit at Hrádeček even during the Communist era.

Four encounters – four testimonials to H. Gordon Skilling’s allegiance to the Czechoslovak cause.