Yes It Is, It's True: A school chief's role in teacher's death
Google William C. Skilling and you’ll bring up much information about an apparently innovative and successful public school superintendent at Oxford. You might also get positive stories about him when he was superintendent at Webberville.
You’d have to do a lot of digging to come to understand there is, or rather was, another Bill Skilling while he was principal at Byron Center High School from 1992 to 2002. You’d find a public school administrator with a callous disregard for the rights and feelings of Gerry Crane, a vocal music teacher whose story ultimately had a tragic ending because he happened to be gay. You’d find a right-wing religious zealot who was a key figure in the rejection and death of a man just because of his sexual orientation.
Though Crane’s story largely is forgotten today, at one time it was broadcast nationally on television and written about in national publications. It came to mind last week when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. So just like when a war ends people fondly remember fallen heroes, I want to remember an innocent victim of the religious right’s relentless bullying of homosexuals.
Crane graduated from Calvin College and earned his master’s degree at Cornerstone University. Judging by this academic record, he was a practicing Christian, but he harbored the secret of his homosexuality. Crane taught vocal music at Bryon Center High School and seemingly did not have any trouble with anyone, earned tenure and was liked and respected by his peers and students.
Then his world crashed around him because word got out of his participation in a commitment ceremony with his partner. As soon as he was outed, he was hounded, bullied and made miserable by Skilling, the Byron Center Board of Education, Superintendent Phillip Swainston and particularly the Byron Center Bible Church, of which Skilling was a member. They seemed to be attempting to make his life a living hell to force him to resign.
Attorney Christine Yared, in her book “Music Lesson,” said some parents at the school began having their children removed from Crane’s classes after Skilling announced a new rule that any parent can have their child taken out of Mr. Crane’s class “at any time, for any reason.”
She said “Skilling even called a student to his office and told her that she was a sinner, just like Mr. Crane, because she was trying to organize support for him. The School Board held a meeting and made their position clear by issuing a written statement that ‘homosexuals do not constitute proper role models as teachers.’”
Crane finally caved in to constant harassment and abuse, resigning in the summer of 1996. The Chicago Tribune said the reason he gave was because the hostile environment was like "ingesting poison… After a while you say,`I can't take any more of this.'”
Crane died six months later, in January 1997 of a heart attack at age 32, and his doctor said it was likely the stress of his troubles contributed.
The Detroit News, in its Jan. 9, 1997, edition, reported that, “Crane's friends asked high school Principal William Skilling to stay away from the funeral… In Skilling's evaluations of Crane, before his homosexuality was learned, the teacher was praised as a ‘role model for our students.’ But by last June, a month before Crane resigned, Skilling warned he could face dismissal if he mentioned anything in class about homosexuality.”
Time Magazine reported, “One student told the teacher that her parents and church pressured her to quit and were concerned that her boyfriend would become gay if he remained in the school choir. Crane explained that her boyfriend would not become a homosexual, and asked if her church had applied pressure. As a result, Crane was reprimanded (by Skilling) for ignoring a school edict not to discuss homosexuality, and received a warning for violating school policy against religious harassment.”
West Michigan Politics in 2006 said, “Skilling was one of the architects in the scandalous inhumane treatment of gay music teacher Gerry Crane. Skilling, a right-wing Christian of the lowest order and principal at Byron Center at the time Crane was being hounded from his job, once threatened Crane with outright firing if he was caught promoting tolerance.”
Someone from Webberville who read that on-line piece asked the author how he knew so much about Skilling and noted he had brought his right-wing religious ideology to cause deep divisions within that community and school district.
My personal encounter with Skilling was about 10 years ago, when he was one of the six finalists for the Hastings superintendent’s job. I remembered speaking with him on the phone and he did not like my line of questioning. I subsequently “outed” him with a front page story in the Hastings Banner before the interviews took place.
When he was asked in his interview about his role in the tragic Gerry Crane story, he made the disturbing comment, “I have no regrets.”
He didn’t get the Hastings post, but later that summer was hired by Webberville and moved on to Oxford in 2007.
I did come across a story in the Oxford Leader about school board candidates in the 2012 election, in which two of them commented on Skilling’s performance. One said, “William Skilling's visions come at a high cost: division in the community, fear of retaliation if one speaks up, being treated in a disrespectful and condescending manner, just to name a few. A superintendent that doesn't realize that people matter more than ‘things’ concerns me.
“I will not allow the community or teachers to be bullied or disrespected. It's time to stop dividing the community. People matter. Most importantly, our children matter.”
Another said, “Dr. Skilling seems more interested in ‘marketing’ the district to the world than improving the education of Oxford students. Test scores and student achievement are down. Unfortunately, Oxford graduates will suffer as they apply to colleges. Dr. Skilling's media success has come at the expense of our children's future.”
Paul Pellerito, a former Byron Center student, not long ago commented in his blog, “I don’t recall a single supportive newspaper editorial or heterosexual person being interviewed on the news who spoke in support of Gerry and against the hatred and bigotry.”
Indeed, the Grand Rapids Press penned an editorial against a gay and lesbian group’s offer to “Adopt a Highway” along 84th Street near Byron Center, saying it would just rub salt in the wound.
The only hope I have left now is that that we don’t forget Gerry Crane. Nor should we forget Bill Skilling.
PHOTOS: Gerry Crane
Dr. William Skilling