Janesville man helps his historic 'buddy' celebrate 200th birthday
Three Janesville residents have been appointed by the governor to serve on the Wisconsin Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.
The commission is coordinating Wisconsin's celebration of the 16th president's 200th birthday.
Maurice Montgomery, Peter Skelly and George Steil Sr. were appointed to serve.
Skelly was chairman of a subcommittee that developed a "Lincoln Heritage Trail" that notes the Wisconsin sites Lincoln visited.
Some events through the year will include a Civil War commemoration in Rock County and a civil war encampment at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison.
Speeches by Lincoln and Civil War historians also are scheduled.
For more information, go to the Wisconsin Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission Web site, www.lincoln200.wi.gov.
JANESVILLE Pete Skelly depends on his wife to give him a swift kick at social gatherings if he gets too passionate about his favorite subject.
She probably needn't worry. Skelly's love of history, especially local history, is contagious.
You've never met anyone more alive when talking about dead people.
The front door of Skelly's Ruger Avenue home opens onto his library—eight shelves lining two walls of the bright room—filled with impressive histories of the presidents, the Revolution, the Black Hawk and Civil wars, Rock County and Abraham Lincoln.
Skelly is the great-great-grandson of Rock Township farmer Peter Skelly, and his ancestor is listed in the 1856 History of Rock County that Skelly has in his library. He also has editions from 1879 and 1908.
"If I don't have it on Wisconsin and the Civil War, I don't know where to find it," Skelly said.
His favorite period is the Civil War, and his favorite historical person is Lincoln.
Skelly, 55, is president of the Lincoln Fellowship of Wisconsin and president and co-founder of the Rock County Civil War Roundtable, both organizations that meet to discuss the era.
Skelly smiles when he recalls that his daughter, when young, used to ask him if he was meeting with the "Lincoln geeks" again. He prefers to call himself an "aficionado."
Whatever he is, it's paid off.
He and fellow Janesville residents Maurice Montgomery and George Steil were appointed by the governor to serve on the Wisconsin Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission to help the state celebrate Lincoln's 200th birthday.
Skelly said he is a bit star-struck sitting in the governor's conference room in Madison alongside the chairs of the UW-Madison and Marquette University history departments and the head of the state historical society.
Skelly chairs the Markers and Memorial Subcommittee, which has tracked Lincoln's path through Wisconsin. Skelly hopes the route will bring people to places such as the Lincoln Tallman House in Janesville.
Skelly, who was born on Pearl Harbor Day, read encyclopedias when he was young. He majored in history at UW-Whitewater. He is employed as a claims adjuster for the Cincinnati Insurance Company.
Among Skelly's areas of expertise is the 13th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment, the Civil War fighting group that never got a chance to fight—much to the chagrin of the troops. They spent most of the war cooling their heels protecting supply lines in Kansas City. Skelly is writing a book on the 13th's history.
Skelly owns copies of the Wisconsin Civil War rosters, published in the 1880s. They include such familiar Janesville names as Pease and Ruger.
Skelly also wrote an article about its quartermaster, Brother Dutton of Janesville, which was published in Blue and Gray Magazine. Skelly finds Dutton a fascinating character. Dutton found religion after the war and joined Father Damien at his leprosy colony on Molokai. Dutton ran the orphanage there for 40 years.
Skelly is excited because he expects this bicentennial year to "rain Lincoln books." He especially likes historical accounts that nudge their subjects off their pedestals.
"Dang it, they're human," Skelly said.
One of Skelly's Lincoln highs was visiting the Lincoln Memorial, when he was inspired to tears. He visited at 6 a.m., so early that it was "just my buddy and the pigeon on his head." He felt the same visiting the Adams family Stone Library that contains more than 14,000 historic volumes.
Those things represent "the ethos of America: all these people who helped form it and make it was it is," Skelly said. "If you lose touch of that, you lose touch of who you are.
"History helps us understand what motivates Americans and why we are where we are now.
"We must remember our history in order to understand ourselves."