Professor Joseph Skaff: A Tribute

June 12, 2018


Professor Joseph Skaff ’57

After more than 30 years of teaching, Professor Joseph Skaff ’57, a scholar of Islam and an Arabic speaker, saw enrollment in his Middle East Today class jump from 25 students to 77 in the wake of 9/11.

Given his lifelong focus on developing a deeper academic appreciation of Arab and Islamic cultures, Skaff, who died recently, was perfectly poised to share his expertise with this new cohort of interested students while encouraging understanding and dialogue.

Generosity of Spirit

As his friend and colleague, Professor Thomas Clarke ’57 recalls, “Joe was very aware of the danger and destructiveness of intolerance and arrogant certitude. At the College, I always saw him as a man who spoke up for inclusiveness, openness, and generosity of spirit.”

The son of Lebanese immigrants, Skaff kept his ties to the Middle East close, visiting Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Israel on many occasions during his life.

In his early career after ordination as a Holy Cross priest, he spent five years in Bangladesh as a missionary. While there, he once found himself having an exchange with another man while caught up in a violent riot.  

According to Professor Clarke, Skaff asked the man, "'how can you kill in the name of God?" The man responded, "if you are not willing to kill for your God, you really do not love him."

“In that exchange,” Professor Clarke adds, “Joe understood that there was something profoundly inhuman in our understanding of truth, especially truths proclaimed as religious."

"This experience shaped Joe's approach to his studies, his teaching, and his dialogue with others. He understood how intolerance and absolutes were the greatest obstacle to critical thinking, the activity for which the College exists. He loved Stonehill as a place that worked to nurture critical thinking.”

As Skaff was dying, he asked Clarke to tell the people in his life that he loved them. 

“Those were the last words I heard him speak,  and I heard them as the epitome of what was always on his mind,” says Clarke.

Beloved Teacher

On hearing of his passing, one of Skaff’s former students, Donna (Fitzgerald) Zampi ’82, remembers her former professor as one of Stonehill’s “most beloved teachers” and she adds that his “wit, charm and intelligence made his classes so popular.”skaff

“He was so special. He married me and my husband and gave us a great speech at our 25th anniversary. I took his classes and they were awesome,” recalls Zampi.

"He loved teaching and his students and being at Stonehill. Joe was a larger than life character with huge ready laugh and a zest for life," says his friend and colleague Professor Richard Finnegan '64.

Decades of Service

In 1969, Skaff returned to Stonehill and went on to serve the College for 41 years, teaching in both the History and Religious Studies departments. In addition to serving on many college committees, he also was Chair of the History Department for many years.

It was at the College that he met his wife, Jean Carleton who died in November and to whom he was deeply devoted.

Along with his work on campus, Skaff served in the Rhode Island Air National Guard, both as a chaplain and an Islamic expert. He retired from the Guard in 1992 with the rank of lieutenant colonel.

"Joe had several notable qualities the first being a fierce level of loyalty to his friends. It was unshakable and he would do anything for you. The friends from Stonehill were friends for life. The friends in the military loved Joe and not only enjoyed his company but availed themselves of his Middle East expertise," says Finnegan.