The film “Strength of Characters” (2000), as seen on “Biography” on the A&E Network is one of the extras on the DVD of “Hell and High Water” (1954) starring Richard Widmark. It is a fair attempt to show the complexity in the wide range of roles that Widmark was great at and his strong marriage as a family man with enviable character traits. It does not really get into his life in Princeton though, where I think a lot of these character traits were strengthened and polished. The experts tell us he basically was who he would be before he came to Princeton, but it was in Princeton where the refining process took place from a steadfast and reliable peer group, guidance from his teachers in his schooling, and his everlasting tie to a strong grandmother who passed along inner strength and a love for the movies.
I think he got the most out of high school that he possibly could. He had supportive friends — pals to do things with. The competition in the classroom and extra activities that comes standard with every four years of high school was especially keen. These things help make us all who we become. Richard Widmark not only found it on the football field, playing in a pickup band, in the classroom, or extra activities with his male friends, he had girls in his classes who were every bit his equal in many fields and even his better in some. This friendly competitiveness in high school strengthens most of us. It builds character and reinforces strengths that are already evident.
One of his classmates who had this strength of character was Mary Winifred Skinner. She was talented in many areas, competitive yet generous, and did and would have many things in common with Widmark.
I think the first time I met Mary Win was when I was asked to be a judge for the art entries at the Bureau County Fair in the late 1980s. Mary Win was the other judge. This was after I had won my fourth Illinois Duck Stamp Competition and was probably a little full of myself. I was still a little in awe of Mary Win though, as she was about all I had heard of since moving to Princeton in 1974. A very good friend of mine and one of Mary Win’s former students and friends — a great artist herself, Pam Erickson talked about her all the time. Pam and Mary Win spent many hours together sketching outdoors. Mary Win was this icon, and I was just some guy who knew how to paint ducks. She made it really easy for me that day at the fair. She would ask me first what I liked about a piece, and then she usually agreed. I think after a few times with this routine, I said I just wasn’t sure, and what do you think? She told me why she liked something, and I knew she was right. I learned a lot that day. I just tried to listen after that. I liked her ever since.
Mary Win was in many of the same extra activities in high school as Richard. They were both in French Club, Science Club, the junior class play, the senior class play, on the newspaper staff and the Tiger annual staff. She and Richard both gave speeches at the 1932 commencement. They were both artistic, Mary Win in drawing and painting, and Richard in acting and public speaking. Richard was just starting to show promise in high school while Mary Win, encouraged from a young age by her mother, Winifred, who had her drawing still life and flower arrangements as a daily activity, was already very polished in her art. Her illustrations for the front pieces in each section of the senior annual attest to her grasp of anatomy and composition. She, like Widmark, would become a master of her art. Her stage would be of a much smaller scale, but her fans and patrons just as demanding, knowledgeable and discerning. Mary Win’s father, Joe, read her the classics, like “A Tale of Two Cities” and many others, and encouraged her reading. It was a lesson she learned well.
You can look in her senior class yearbook and read the inscriptions from fellow classmates and a few of her teachers. You will get a feeling for her, her skill in art, her competitiveness and decided accomplishment in practically all she attempted. Richard wrote in her yearbook; Dick Widmark ‘32 “I cannot parlez - but - au revoir.” He was saying he could not speak French as good as her, but hey, good bye (old friend).
I do remember Mary Win saying to me, many years ago, in talking about the school plays they were in together, “Widmark was a very good actor, and I was just a part of the scenery.” Her comment said a lot about her, polite and humble, and as the artist that she was, she did indeed probably have a lot to do with the stage scenery. In the classroom Widmark always sat behind her and to her right, and outside of school she tells of eating day-old donuts behind Henri’s bakery with Richard and friends. Their lockers were not too far apart also, so there was a daily connection: Skinner, Slutz, Townsend, and Widmark.
The Skinner family was definitely more well off than the Widmark family, but that alone is never the deciding factor in what we become. Money does give many people a decided advantage, but you still have to make it on your own, most of the time. Widmark’s life in Princeton had its stress. He had this to say in a 1953 interview. “Religion was no comfort to me in my childhood and youth; it was an irritant, responsible for constant bickering in the home. My father was a Lutheran, my mother a Christian Scientist and her mother a Catholic. I was tossed up for grabs. There was a period in which I used to creep within earshot as they all argued about me, hotly, furiously. And then I stayed strictly away.” The Widmarks moved constantly, probably for financial reasons, and finally there was the separation of his parents in 1931.
Mary Win had her own valley; at the age of 9, she would lose her mother to illness. Her father would later remarry. Joe Skinner married Grace Petersen, who had been the nurse who cared for Winifred during her long illness. They would have two children, George and (Katherine) Kate. No matter what your financial situation, every family and every child has their own valleys and hills. Mary Win Skinner and Richard Widmark both had that strength of character that gets you through your valleys. It gets you to the top of the hill.
I’ll tell you, in my next installment, about how the paths of these two classmates were similar but with different goals, in different fields, and yet both in the fine arts. More Mary Win and Richard Widmark next time.