In class at West Point, listening to a major delivering a lecture, he had that first wistful, prophetic and defining thought: “Gee, I wonder if I could ever be a major someday.”
Joe Skaff did a lot better than that.
After more than three decades in the military, he retired as a two-star major general with medals galore. And that wasn’t the end of it.
Under Gov. Gaston Caperton, he served seven years as West Virginia Adjutant General and simultaneously as secretary of the newly formed state Department of Public Safety.
Starting with the coveted West Point appointment, he accumulated a brow-raising military resume that includes teaching at West Point and the Army War College, commands in Hawaii, Korea, Japan and Vietnam, a stint with the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon and international treaty negotiations that brought him to briefings in the Situation Room at the White House.
A grandson of Lebanese immigrants, a West Side wunderkind who grew up working in his father’s grocery store, he remains gracious and soft-spoken, unaffected by his extraordinary success story, almost amazed by it.
Old-school and military values – family, church, duty, honor and country – made him who he is. It’s a mantra that guides him to this day.
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“My granddad had six apartments where the new part of Saint Francis Hospital is. We lived in No. 6. He lived in No. 1. He came to this country in the 1890s as an infant. My mother came when she was 16 with her sister, who is Rev. Richard Mahan’s sister.
“They came to Lowell, Massachusetts, where two half-sisters lived. They worked in a textile factory ironing shirts for 25 cents an hour.
“My dad, Mike Skaff, met my mother in Massachusetts and married her and brought her back to Charleston.
“He owned a grocery store on the corner of Court and Donnally streets, M.J. Skaff Grocery. My granddad’s store was a block up. Three blocks away was St. George Orthodox Church. The Lebanese gathered in the area around that church.
“In the third grade, I moved to the West Side, to Park Avenue. My two sisters still live in that house.
“At Wilson Junior High, I was vice president of the school and very active in sports. But I was about this size when I was 13.
“When I got to Stonewall, my athletics had ebbed. I became very active in leadership. I was president of my class for three years. I was involved in everything.
“The high schools all had sororities and fraternities and they had big dances at the Casa Loma and that’s how I grew up. Plus working. I practically ran the store when I was 14, my dad and me.
“I graduated mid-year in January of ’48. I decided I wanted to go to a service academy. My uncles were all in the service. I wrote to them every week. I was immersed in that kind of thinking. I grew up with the Greatest Generation during the war. Probably every young man in the neighborhood was in the service.
“I applied for the Naval Academy. The service academies only had 2,400 in each academy, and you had to be appointed by a senator or congressman. They appointed a principal and two alternates. I was an alternate, so I didn’t go. I decided to heck with it.
“I was a chemistry major for three years at WVU. I was in ROTC. My instructor said I should apply to West Point. I applied and was an alternate again. So I just continued to go to WVU.
“I was in advanced ROTC. In one more year, I would be commissioned in the Air Force. My dad that summer had a brain tumor, and he was in Charlottesville having surgery, so I was running the store.
“I wanted an additional major, so I went to Morris Harvey to take business management classes.
“I got a call from my congressman asking if I wanted to go to West Point. I said no because I would be commissioned the next year. Every applicant he submitted failed either the mental or physical test. I had passed both, so I was a qualified candidate.
“He needed to know the next day. I walked up to my granddad’s store and Uncle Paul was there. He had gone to the Citadel after the Army. He said West Point was the greatest opportunity I could ever have. So I went off to West Point.
“So much came out of West Point for me. A major was teaching a class and I thought, ‘Gee, I wonder if I could ever be a major someday.’
“When I graduated as a lieutenant, I bought a new car, the first car I’d ever owned, a Chevrolet Biscayne for $1,700.
“I went into the artillery. This was my seventh year in college, so I wanted to do the shortest thing I could do, which was jump school. I went off to Fort Benning and jumped out of airplanes for a month.
“My first schooling was at Fort Bliss, Texas. Hoppy and Bronson Shores were there. We were good friends at Stonewall and WVU. After about 10 weeks of that schooling, I was to go Baltimore at a missile site. Bronson said I needed to meet her roommate from WVU. She had transferred to Johns Hopkins to get her nursing degree. I called Maree and we eventually got married.
“I decided I wanted to do missiles more than the cannon part, but we got orders to go to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, to field artillery, which was cannon. I went there for a year. I was told I was going to Korea unaccompanied. I had a bride and a new baby and I’d be gone a year.
“I was going to resign as I had served my mandatory time. I applied to GE. They said when I got out, I had a job with them in human relations. The rule in the army was that if you got your orders, you couldn’t resign until you served them out.
“I go to the mailbox and open my orders. They were for Hawaii. We ended up in Hawaii for three years. We had two children born there.
“The colonel said I was going to be commander of a cannon unit. I kept saying I didn’t want to do that, but it turned out to be one of greatest things that happened to me. I was named outstanding company grade officer in the Pacific. Things were really starting to come together.
“It was time for me to go to the advanced course as a captain back to Fort Sill. I got really involved in research and development. They were developing missiles to shoot down the ICBMs that would come in. My job was to develop the war head for that.
“I got an early promotion to major. They sent me to the Navy War College in Newport, Rhode Island. So I’m a major after three years and got selected early for lieutenant colonel and my orders said I would command a battalion in Vietnam. That’s as good as you can get for a new lieutenant colonel. I served there nine years in an area you could only reach by plane. We were attacked or hit by rockets or mortars 100 times the day I left. Pretty scary. My unit was one of the biggest shooters in Vietnam.
“From there, I was assigned to the Pentagon. We bought a house in Washington. We had three kids and eventually a fourth one. I was in the Pentagon two years and got selected to go to the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
“So we rented the house and went to Carlisle for a year. The guy responsible for assigning people said, ‘Why don’t you go to West Point? That’s where I’m going.’ So through him, I got this assignment to go to West Point on the faculty. I was assigned to the superintendent, the top guy.
“They’d never had anything on race relations there. They had no black instructors and very few black cadets. I was given that task. A year went by, and they moved me to the cadet side, to the commandant.
“They were opening a new facility called Eisenhower Hall that seated 2,400 cadets for shows and lectures. I was responsible for opening that and assigning shows that would come in. My first show was Bob Hope. The next one was Bill Cosby. It went like that each month.
“After that year, I became commander of a regiment, about 1,400 cadets. The last part of that tour, I commanded what was known as Beast Barracks for the new cadets coming in. I had the last all-male Beast Barracks. I was involved in bringing the women. They assimilated very well into West Point.
“It was time for another unaccompanied tour. I left my family at West Point and went to Korea for a year. I decided I wanted to go back to the war college as an instructor. I was advised not to do that because I would never get promoted as it was too plush of an assignment. That was fine with me.
“So I went to Carlisle and was there about 18 months and got promoted to brigadier general and got assigned to the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon.
“I had a master’s in international relations from George Washington University. That put me into the international part and I became director of international relations in JCS.
“I had to go off and negotiate treaties throughout Europe. The biggest one was with the Russians. I did that for eight months on the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT). That was when the U.S. and Russians were reducing the nuclear arsenal. I was the deputy commissioner. When we went to Washington to negotiate, we would go to the White House and get our instructions in the situation room.
“I had the transition between Carter and Reagan. Here’s Carter ready to dismantle everything and Reagan comes in and he’s a hawk.
“In Korea, I was responsible for all the nuclear weapons. President Carter decided to move all the nuclear weapons out. I get a knock on the door and it’s The Washington Post wanting to know what I thought about Carter’s decision. I said that would be the biggest mistake we could make. About a week later, I made headlines in the Stars and Stripes: ‘Missile Commander Opposes President’. It came out in The Washington Post that way, too.
“Two years is all you get on the Joint Chiefs staff. They gave me a list of places available. I said anywhere but Japan because my daughter was getting married the next summer.
“When I got my orders, they were for Japan. It was the greatest assignment we ever had. I was deputy commanding general and chief of staff of U.S. Army Japan. We worked with the highest people in Japan, military and international types.
“From there, we came to Fort Meade, Maryland, where I was chief of staff and deputy commander general of the First Army. I didn’t figure I would do much more after that.
“Next thing I knew, I was getting my second star and they moved me to Fort Devens in Massachusetts to be the commanding general.
“That was 34 years and time to retire. I got a call from Harley Mooney. I knew him through the Army. He was working for the new governor of West Virginia, Gaston Caperton. He said Caperton was looking for a West Virginia general. He wasn’t comfortable with politicking at the Guard about who was going to be the adjutant general. I said I wasn’t interested. We were going to retire in Carlisle.
“A couple of weeks went by and Mooney called and told me to get on a plane to Charleston to meet with the governor and then I could make my decision. I did that, and Gaston just blew me away.
“He said he was going to make me the adjutant general. I was getting paid $35,000, but he said he had other things in mind for me. He was doing the super secretary thing. One would be transportation and one would be public safety. I wanted public safety because that included the State Police, the prisons, jails, emergency services, veterans affairs and the National Guard.
“They more than doubled my pay to $80,000, plus I had my retirement. I was adjutant general almost seven years doing the other job, too, me and a secretary and an administrative assistant, three of us running the whole Department of Public Safety. Now they have about 150 in that department.
“We got a court ruling to close Moundsville and we built a new state prison. Then the Legislature eliminated the county jails, so we started building regional jails. We built six in my tenure.
“With emergency services, we had a 36-inch snowfall in Charleston that closed everything. And we had all the flooding in Logan and the south. All this stuff just kept coming. I retired from the state in ’97.
“In 34 years of active duty, we moved 25 times. The longest assignment was four years at West Point and four at Fort Devens.
“I was on three nonprofit boards. Union Mission. Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Believe in West Virginia.
“I can’t tell you how very satisfied I’ve been with my life. The greatest privilege anyone can have is to serve their country. This idea of duty, honor and country that MacArthur talked about, it became a living part of me. Always doing the best you can in an honorable way.
“The most important thing was to focus on choosing what was right instead of the easier wrong. That was taught to me at West Point.”
Reach Sandy Wells at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-342-5027.