Born in Troy, Ohio on July 22, 1932, Thomas E. Skidmore moved with his family to Cincinnati when he was six months old. Skidmore once recalled in an interview that the fact that he had grown up in a city of industrial workers probably had had a big influence on his future choices in life. A product of the public school system, Skidmore was state debating champion while at Wyoming High School located in suburban Cincinnati. Not surprisingly, he was also a stellar student, earning statewide honors in merit exams.
Skidmore graduated in Political Science and Philosophy from Denison University in 1954. Interested in continuing to pursue his interest in Philosophy, he received a two-year Fulbright Fellowship to study at Magdalen College in Oxford, England, where he received a second B.A. in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics in 1956 and an M.A. in 1959. It was at Oxford where Skidmore met his future wife, Felicity. She claims that she pursued him diligently for several months until she finally caught him. There were married in style at Oxford.
Skidmore received his doctorate at Harvard in 1960. His specialty was modern European history with a specialization in German and British history. His doctoral dissertation was entitled “The Chancellorship of Caprivi: A Constitutional Study,” and was based on research in ten regional archives. His first publication was an article in the American Historical Review surveying the availability of German archives. And then along came the Cuban Revolution. As Skidmore likes to say, “Sou filho de Fidel”— I’m one of Castro’s sons.
Indeed, Washington and the Ivory Towers shifted their gaze southward to figure out what had gone wrong on that Caribbean Island and how policy makers could prevent another Cuba. Harvard gave Skidmore a three-year post-doc to study a Latin American country, and he chose Brazil. The end result of his three years of research in Brazil was his seminal work Politics in Brazil: 1930-64, An Experiment in Democracy, published in 1967, with multiple reprints, and a Brazilian edition in 1969. The book became a standard in university courses on contemporary Brazil. Every Brazilian intellectual, and even some ex-presidents, owned a copy. A rich scholarly output grew out of this namoro, his love affair with Brazil.
In 1966 Skidmore and his family moved to the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he had a stellar career, rising from Associate Professor in 1967 to Full Professor in 1968. He was the backbone of the large Latin American Studies program in Wisconsin, editing the Luso-Brazilian Review and training many generations of scholars. He raised a family with his wife and maintained a continuously close relationship with Brazil.
After twenty years at Madison, he came to Brown University as the Carlos Manuel de Céspedes Professor of Modern Latin American History and Professor of Portuguese and Brazilian Studies. For a decade he directed the Center for Latin American Studies (now the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies), and retired in 1999. Skidmore actively engaged in service in the academic world. Among other positions, he was a member of the Executive Board of the Latin American Studies Association from 1968-1973, the President of LASA in 1972, and the President of the New England Latin American Studies Association.
To recognize his life-time contribution to the academic world, the Brazilian Studies Association honored him at its VIII International Conference at Vanderbilt University in October 2006 with their first Lifetime Contribution Award, recognizing his significant role in developing and supporting Brazilian Studies.
Skidmore was also well-known and important in Brazil. Of all of the U.S. scholars studying Brazil, brasilianistas, he was at the top. On at least two occasions, his public statements about the political situation in Brazil during the military dictatorship caused confrontations with the Brazilian government. In 1970, Skidmore, along with three other prominent scholars of Brazil in the United States, signed an open letter condemning the imprisonment of the leading Marxist historian Caio Prado Júnior. At the time, Skidmore served as the Chair of the Government Relations Committee of the Latin American Studies Association. In that capacity, he sponsored a resolution condemning the military regime’s systematic repression of Brazilian academics and other oppositionists. In retaliation for his political stance, the Brazilian government denied him a research visa to teach a seminar at the University of Campinas-São Paulo during the summer of 1970.
In 1984, on the eve of the return to democratic rule, while lecturing in Brazil, Professor Skidmore was summoned to appear before the Federal Police for commenting on the political situation and was threatened with expulsion from the country (charges that were later dropped). Many academics, politicians and journalists came to his defense and attacked the actions of the Federal Police as unconstitutional and a violation of academic freedom. More than this, it has been his brilliant analyses of the political, social, and cultural aspects of Brazil that have left a rich legacy not only on his field of study, but also on colleagues with whom he came into contact.