Send us your tribute to Marty Sklar

Ryman Arts Board President Wayne Hunt with Co-Founders Leah and Marty Sklar

By Wayne Hunt, Board President, Ryman Arts

Marty Sklar, a co-founder of Ryman Arts and its leader for many years, had a huge impact on a lot of people, including me. Here’s my story. Send us yours.

I worked with Marty and his Imagineers nearly continuously as a graphics consultant since 1974. We played at least some role in ten Disney theme parks and last year saw two nice assignments fulfilled in Shanghai. Until a few years ago I knew him only as one tough and demanding client. He had a finger on the pulse of everything around him and no detail was too small for his often acerbic red pen. You went into Marty meetings prepared or else.

But then around 2006 I joined him on the board of his beloved Ryman Arts and got to know the real, or whole Marty. The patient, inspiring, almost  fatherly guy who worked tirelessly to shape Ryman Arts into the nationally respected arts teaching organization. Watching him lead a board meeting was inspiring and a great learning experience in itself. Marty was still a prolific personal note writer, inscribing each of hundreds of invitations to Ryman Arts events each year, yes, in red marker. He was a master fundraiser, he said because he believed so much in the cause.

In 2014 I took over for Marty as board president of Ryman Arts — talk about gigantic shoes to fill! — and that’s when I really found out what he had done so beautifully for 25 years. Let me tell you, it ain’t easy being Marty.

The most meaningful tribute to him would be a donation to Ryman Arts, in any amount. You won’t get a red-pen note back now, but you’d help fulfill one of his biggest dreams.

Phil Hettema, Board Secretary, Ryman Arts

I’m certain I am only one of legions who feel a huge sense of loss in our lives with Marty Sklar’s passing.  Personally, he was a seminal figure in my life long before I was ever fortunate enough to meet him.  As a young boy growing up, I pored over the guide books he wrote about Disneyland, and as soon as I figured out what an “Imagineer” was, I was aware of Marty and his role as the leader of a very special band of magic makers.  He personified not just that magic, but the optimism and incredibly high standard of quality that the world of Disney theme parks brought to life.

When I was finally old enough to get a job at Disneyland, the thought of being an Imagineer seemed further away than I could have ever hoped or dreamed for.  When life’s strange twists brought me to Universal years later, it was always Disney storytelling and imagination … all those things that Marty exemplified… that was the standard of quality I aspired to and tried to live up to.

When I finally got a chance to meet Marty through the TEA, it was all I could do to even have a simple conversation with him – I felt like I was in the presence of this imposing and mythical legend, even though Marty was as easy to talk to as anyone I’ve ever met.  I was truly awed by who he was and what he had accomplished.  I really believe that much that we now think of as our “industry”, far beyond the walls of Disney’s theme parks, would simply not exist today without Marty’s influence and impact.

What a revelation, then, as I got to know Marty better, both through the THEA awards committee and eventually on the Ryman Arts board.   I discovered that his greatest attribute was not all of his many accomplishments, but his remarkable humanity. He quietly demonstrated so many lessons…his never ending concern for education, for mentoring young people, and finding that perfect moment when one encouraging comment or piece of advice could become the spark that propelled a young persons career or character.

Marty had the rare ability to treat everyone as a special individual.. no doubt because he believed that to be so.  It feels presumptuous to say it, but I feel like Marty was a kind of second father to me, and I have spoken to literally dozens over the past few days who feel the same way.  He was a role model and an exemplar of living a meaningful life that I will carry with me and do my best to emulate.

The many ways Marty touched lives will continue to ripple through the world. Ryman Arts students now and far into the future will feel his presence through the program which he, his beloved partner Leah and other friends started together in Herb Ryman’s memory.  I’m so honored to be able to play a small ongoing role with Ryman Arts, and pledge to keep that flame burning in Marty’s memory.

I mourn his passing, but celebrate his life.  Mine is so much richer for having known him.  

Ryman Arts Board Member Ed Nowak and Co-Founder Marty Sklar

Ed Nowak, Board Member, Ryman Arts

It is with humility that I submit a remembrance of Marty. I came to Disney with a charge to deliver legal service to a company completely unfamiliar to me. Many things were long in place; some legally-charged situations needed to be evaluated, revised, reallocated. Among those were ones affecting WDI (then still WED). Early on I encountered Marty and his lieutenants. We sorted out how I might be helpful, establishing East-West engineering conferences, regular interactions with his human resources staff, tapping Imagineers for consulting on litigation, and gradually there was an unspoken comfort level arrived at between the authority of a legend long before he was a Legend and, of all things on the other hand, a lawyer. I was hungry for his knowledge and occasionally he came to know that my sympathies were with what he was continuing to accomplish.

As the years passed-- I flatter myself here-- Marty came to trust instinctively that we knew together how to get things done, all manner of things, breaking barriers and cutting red tape, whether it be helping clear things for a book of Buzz Price’s or for logjams in getting something built in Florida. He and I got very familiar and collaborated on legal cases and, I remember happily, an elaborate press conference about the rights to the design of Epcot. Our bonding was made complete when we learned that we were both born and had our early childhoods in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The ultimate flattery was his for me in soliciting me to give a hand to Ryman Arts, of which I had been an observer and supporter. I can’t think of a happier association at the company as the one I came to enjoy with him, especially after he moved his office from WDI to corporate headquarters across the tarmac from mine and we were able to spend time, with my just dropping in, talking together and my learning from every meeting. There is so much that I was able to apply and to help others to appreciate. Marty’s seed took root and I am privileged to pollinate what he gave us. I share with all who read this the grief that his direct part in this cycle of life has been interrupted, but I know that what he gave us is securely in place to continue indefinitely.

Joe DiNunzio, former Board Member, Ryman Arts

We are so grateful to Marty and Leah Sklar for their great kindness, thoughtfulness, and support for our family over the 25 years we have known them.  They have guided us on how to live a full life, one dedicated to family, colleagues, and community.  I am confident in saying that we are just one of many families so positively impacted by their example. 

To honor Marty, I would like to offer up two stories that give a glimpse into how deeply he has helped me grow as an executive and a human being.

The first is from when I started as a new Imagineer.  I was an anomaly – a business guy roaming the halls at WDI.  This was at a time when there were significant changes going on in the company, including an emphasis on cost control and “business discipline.”  Needless to say, my popularity was far from pre-ordained.  From day one Marty committed to helping me learn how to be a successful member of the team, and how to have the kind of impact I wanted to have on the company.  It started with Marty inviting me to his creative lunches, where I could learn from his inner circle about the opportunities and challenges we were facing.  He also set me up with one-on-one time with the leaders of every part of the organization, both so I would understand what they do, but also so I would see the world through their eyes.  To gain hands-on experience, he asked me to facilitate blue sky sessions, ignoring my decided lack of pedigree in that department.  And he vouched for me with his mentor and friend -- John Hench – who opened up a world that I had never even imagined existed.  My ability to grow and develop as an executive at Imagineering started with Marty’s belief in me, and his use of his standing, insights, and energy to demonstrate that belief.

The second is from the time after I had left WDI to become an entrepreneur.  I fully expected that my relationship with Marty would have to change, and I was genuinely concerned that because I was no longer an Imagineer, it would be difficult to stay connected.  Marty made it very clear that not only would we remain friends, but that he fully expected us to remain colleagues as well.  Over the next 15 years we shared many cherished professional and personal moments together.  Among the most important was when he invited me to serve on the Ryman Arts board.  Beyond the trust it conveyed, it was an honor to have the opportunity to share in his dream to provide free access to world-class art instruction for talented and motivated students.  It also showed me how a dedicated group of people could make a difference in the lives of children and the community.  Marty’s commitment to Ryman Arts has served as a model for me to get deeply involved in education and community, in our home town of Davis.  Marty also never gave up on having fun together – whether at the Hollywood Bowl, Laguna Beach, or on the tennis court – Marty’s joy for life was always infectious (a word he would no doubt “red pen,” were he reading this).  It would have been easier for Marty to move on from our relationship, but he never did, with me, or so many others who left the fold but never the flock.

I will close by saying I deeply miss my friend and mentor.  My life will never be as full with Marty no longer in it.  But I cherish who he was and what he accomplished, and the moments I was blessed to have spent with him.

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