The founder of the Dead Poets Society of America has died after he commissioned his own tombstone.
Walter Skold, a Philly-area resident who founded the organization in 2008, died on Jan. 20 at the age of 57, the Philly Voice reports. Skold’s death comes just a month after he enlisted the help of author John Updike’s son to assist him in carving his gravestone. The gravestone was to be topped with a dancing skeleton and a quill — a well-known symbol of writers world-over.
Skold was often known as the “Dead Poet’s Guy.” During his lifetime, Skold visited the graves of over 600 deceased poets. He would often read poems standing beside a bard’s final resting place and had been known to occasionally hold sleepovers in the cemeteries he visited. At each grave, the Philadelphia Tribune reported in 2015, Skold would pour cognac on the poet’s tombstone, reminiscent of a ritual performed by a person or persons who had done the same for Edgar Allen Poe on his birthday for nearly seven decades after Poe’s death.
Though Skold’s actions evoke what the Los Angeles Times referred to as “the macabre,” his intentions were always well meaning. Skold told a reporter in a 2009 LA Times interview that his actions were honorable, and his ultimate goal had always been to promote poetry and those who wrote it.
Born in York, Pennsylvania, Skold recently moved to Elkins Park to be closer to his mother and sister, the Philly Voice reports. But Skold’s Dead Poets Society journey actually began a few states north, in Maine. After watching the 1989 Robin Williams movie by the same name, he was inspired to start a group who devoted itself to preserving the memory of America’s bards. He purchased a cargo van, which he’d later dub “Dedgar the Poemobile,” complete with an Edgar Allen Poe bobble head on the dashboard, and began driving the country, looking for graves of dead poets and advocating poetry education along the way.
His mission seems to have worked. Skold was able to amass a large repository of information regarding the poets and their final resting places. In addition, his goal to “honor our literary forebears and to historically resurrect their works,” as he described in the 2009 interview, proved to be a success. His quirky approach to poetry drew attention to dead bards and their work in a way that few others had done before.