Left: Purnell, then a foreign service officer, takes Martin Luther King, Jr. on a tour of Jamaica (Photo: Dick Carter via The News Journal)
Another exceptional Delawarean from a previous generation of activist types has died.
Skip Purnell passed on on July 28, 2015, at the age of 93. He and spouse Til Purnell had celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary in June.
Skipper and Til were fixtures of life in Sussex County for decades, until moving to Virginia in 2006 to be closer to family members. Their estate on Herring Creek included a building collection–mostly houses–, moved onto their property from various locations. They were an interesting combination of conservative Sussex County, Delaware, traits and the progressive thinking of people who had seen the world–Purnell had a career in the US Foreign Service. Til was (is, I presume) more the environmentalist, perhaps the most active in Sussex County. Skip represented the League of Women Voters in the process that lead to the gutting of the Delaware Coastal Zone Act. Whether he ever regretted what he agreed to, I don’t know.
Below are obits from the Stooge and the Cape Gazzette:
3:57 p.m. EDT July 27, 2015
Lewis ‘Skipper’ Purnell: An ‘Incredible Life’
Lewis Morgan “Skipper” Purnell was a high school student when he drove Jack Lewis around Sussex County as the young artist worked on the watercolors that would fill his classic 1940 book, “The Delaware Scene.”
Purnell was the perfect choice. A native of Georgetown, he knew the back roads of Sussex County as well as anyone. But he also had an interest in art and photography and could, according to his grandson, Ben Cannon, fix anything.
“My grandfather lived an incredible life, so much so that it almost seems fictional – a sprawling picaresque novel that moves from a boyhood in Delaware to a life of adventure around the world. He was a great storyteller and had an inexhaustible fund of fantastic stories,” Cannon said.
But through his travels – from college in Baltimore to his WWII service to his years as a foreign service officer – he never forgot his roots.
“Skipper loved Delaware,” said former state archivist Russ McCabe.
On Saturday, Purnell, 93, died at his home in Free Union, Virginia.
He was, said long-time friend Ed Freel, a “public citizen” who cared deeply about his state and his passions, among them, historic preservation, the fragments, papers and photographs that enrich the meaning of history in the state and Delaware’s libraries.
“We should all say: ‘Thank you, Skipper,’ ” Freel said.
Purnell, son of former Delaware State Senator Harold W.T. Purnell and Myrtle Agnes Virginia Morgan Purnell, was born in Georgetown on Nov. 10, 1921.
His father ran the local hardware store and was a photographer and amateur archaeologist. Purnell graduated from Georgetown High School and went on to study psychology and history at Johns Hopkins University.
He left college in 1942 to join the American Field Service in WWII, serving as an ambulance driver with the British Army in North Africa and Italy and graduating in absentia in 1943. He was injured at Monte Cassino in Italy in 1944 and returned to the United States. In 1945, he married Matilda “Til” Horn of Rehoboth Beach, his wife for 70 years.
Purnell taught school in Georgetown but, at the urging of a friend, went to Washington to take the test for the U.S. foreign service, according to his longtime friend Richard Carter. Purnell passed, his friend did not, Carter recalled.
Lewis “Skipper” Purnell (Photo: Submitted photo)
His first assignment was in Naples. He and his wife served in Italy, Burma, Washington, D.C., Malaysia, London, Jamaica, Japan, Indonesia and the Philippines.
The Purnells retired from the Foreign Service in 1976 and returned to Delaware.
They launched a second career as volunteers. Purnell focused on politics, historic preservation and libraries. His wife took on environmental issues such as the protection and cleanup of Delaware’s Inland Bays. Both were active members of the local League of Women Voters.
For many years, they lived at a home on Herring Creek, a tributary of Rehoboth Bay.
Purnell was an avid collector and the powder room of their home, Thornby, was wallpapered with hundreds of invitations they had received during their time in the foreign service. He collected old buildings like some folks collect stamps.
His additions at Thornby included the former Lewes post office, once the law office of Caesar Rodney’s brother, and an 18th-century farmhouse.
He converted the Rodney office into his personal library.
Freel said that after he was sworn in as Delaware’s secretary of state, he got a call from Purnell.
“He had a lot of ideas about how I should run my office,” he recalled.
It turned out, most of them were right, Freel said.
The end result, thanks to Purnell’s efforts, is Delaware has both world class libraries and archives, Freel said.
“Skipper Purnell embodied the most noble ideals of his generation: intellectual curiosity, unparalleled conversation and a gift for jovial discourse equaled only to that of his resplendent wife, Til.”
To be a guest in their home was an honor, an experience remembered with clarity and gratitude that, for a little while at least, you were in the company of a triumphant pair of shooting stars,” said James Bennett, a lifelong family friend, who runs a peach orchard in Frankford.
McCabe said he believes one reason Purnell was so passionate about Delaware and Sussex County was because “he had seen a bigger world and he devoted his life to improving what he could.”
He was retired but “here’s a guy who didn’t hesitate to get in his car to come to Dover” and talk to state lawmakers to get money for libraries and preservation of history,” McCabe said.
Once, McCabe said, they ran into each other at an auction at the old Blizzards Store in Georgetown. It had closed in the 1960s.
There was a big chest of newspapers in the collection to be auctioned off, including a complete set of the Civil War-era “Georgetown Messenger,” McCabe said.
Many wanted the chest. Some wanted the newspapers. The bidding was heated but Purnell prevailed.
“Skipper bought those and donated them to the archives,” McCabe said. “He didn’t even bother to take them home.”
He and his sister-in-law Frances “Blackie” Nygood, of Georgetown, were regulars at Wilson’s Auction in Lincoln on Saturday mornings, combing through the boxes to find treasures.
“Everybody knew Skipper,” she said.
Cape Gazzette, July 28, 2015
Lewis Morgan “Skipper” Purnell, son of former Delaware State Senator Harold W.T. Purnell and Myrtle Agnes Virginia Morgan Purnell, was born in Georgetown Nov. 10, 1921. He died Saturday, July 25, 2015, in Charlottesville, Va.
Skipper had a restless intelligence and an unquenchable curiosity that carried him on a life of adventure around the world. Educated in the Georgetown public schools, he studied psychology and history at Johns Hopkins University. He left college in 1942 to join the American Field Service in World War II, serving as an ambulance driver with the British Army in North Africa and Italy, and graduating in absentia in 1943. He was injured at Monte Cassino in 1944 and returned to the United States. In 1945, he married Matilda “Til” Horn of Rehoboth Beach, and began a distinguished career in the Foreign Service. He and Til served in Italy, Burma, Washington D.C., Malaysia, London, Jamaica, Japan, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
Skipper, who grew up working in his father’s hardware store, had a lifelong love of tools and technology. After retiring from the Foreign Service in 1976, Skipper and Til built a house on Herring Creek by combining the former Lewes post office (once the law office of Caesar Rodney’s brother) and an 18th-century farmhouse.
In his retirement, Skipper transferred his energies to volunteering. He worked tirelessly on behalf of Delaware libraries, archives, and historical preservation, receiving the Governor’s Heritage Award in 2004. In 2006, he and Til moved to Free Union, Va., to be closer to family.
He was an avid sailor, photographer, stained glass artist, and collector of Southeast Asian art, antique tools, meteorites, English pewter, and early American furniture.
Skipper is survived by his wife of 70 years; his daughter Alice Purnell Cannon; three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to Doctors Without Borders, 3337th Ave., New York, NY 10001.