Remembering Barbara “Barbie” Skinner

November 15, 2022

Scholarship created to celebrate the life and legacy of an educator, gardener, friend

To family and friends, Barbara (Bowman) Skinner was a “force of nature.” She was always smiling, had a memorable laugh, and was full of grace, compassion, vivacity and loyalty. She was also driven to excel, whether it be in the classroom or in the garden. 

When Barbie died in 2019 after a courageous battle with brain cancer, her husband, Gil, knew a scholarship in her memory would carry on her legacy by supporting others who shared her passion for teaching, learning and leading. 

Skinner smiles while she reads off a paper.
Skinner speaking while president of the Port Ludlow Performing Arts Board. 

“Barbie saw teaching as a calling, not just a job,” Gil recalled. “She loved teaching, loved her students, loved helping people.” 

The drive to help others (and her friendly competitive spirit) began early in Barbie’s life. A native of Hudson, Mich., Barbie grew up in a farming family. She participated in 4-H competitions (one prized pig, affectionately called Pig, won a blue ribbon at the local fair) and won a Daughters of the American Revolution scholarship to attend Michigan State University.

Cassandra Book, associate dean and professor emerita of the College of Education, was one of Barbie’s first-year roommates. 

“When we started at MSU, education was changing,” said Book, who retired in 2012. “We were part of a revolution of researchers who were working to understand how kids learned and how to engage them in learning.” 

They graduated in 1970 (Barbie with a degree in Elementary Education, and Book with a degree in Communication and a teaching certificate in Secondary Education), and both returned to MSU a few years later. Book was a faculty member in Communication and eventually Teacher Education. Barbie was a local teacher in Okemos, Mich., who opened her classroom doors to scholars as a field source of research. Barbie also supported future educators, serving as a mentor to Spartans during their Teacher Preparation Program internship. Barbie earned a master’s in 1977 in Reading Instruction. (Later in life, Barbie would also serve on the college’s Alumni Board, including as its president in 1989-90.) 

“I would visit her classroom to learn from her,” said Book, who remained lifelong friends with Barbie. “She was the best teacher.”  

Her colleagues and students agreed. Many expressed how Barbie was a constant teacher, sharing what she was learning and modeling different ways of doing things. She was “at the forefront of trying to learn something new,” said Gil, and “had a focus on doing what was best for her students.” She retired in 2006 after 37 years as an elementary teacher.


In all her interests, Barbie connected it to her love of education.

Nature was prominent in her life; she helped develop the BIG Zoo curriculum and taught the lessons in the local zoo, and led winter camping trips with her class. At their Okemos home, Barbie and Gil’s garden netted hundreds of visitors per year, including from the Lansing Community College landscape architecture class. When the Skinners moved to their “paradise” in Washington state upon retirement, Barbie joined and then became president of the Port Ludlow Garden Club. 

Skinner stands on a beach in Australia.
Skinner in Australia

In addition, she was president of the Port Ludlow Performing Arts Board, where she coordinated outreach to area schools and led initiatives for the community center. A teacher even in retirement, Barbie found the time to be a local math tutor. 

During extensive travel (including to at least 12 foreign countries), Barbie took the lead on places to go and things to do, spending weeks researching the culture. 

Barbie, also a talented cook, competed in a local chili-making competition. Naturally, she won.

The Skinners were deeply involved in the community—so much so that, Gil said with a laugh, a regular saying in their neighborhood was: “Watch out for Barbie and Gil: They’re always recruiting.” 

Throughout her life, Barbie was recognized for her dedication to the people around her and the students she served. She received the College of Education’s Distinguished Alumna Award (1980) and the Okemos Education Foundation’s Commitment to Excellence Award (2001). She was most proud of helping her school win two Golden Apple Awards for Outstanding Achievement. It was no surprise to Gil she was celebrated so often, in part because she was just so full of life.

To honor her legacy—her optimism, her smile that could light up a room, her appreciation for nature and her drive to improve education for all—he created the Barbara Jean (Bowman) Skinner Endowed Scholarship in 2021 to support future educators.

“She did a lot for other people, and she did a lot for her profession,” Gil said. “We were always trying to give back, Barbie especially through her teaching. What better thing to memorialize her and who she was than to provide an opportunity for others to become teachers?”

Learn how you can contribute to the Barbara Jean (Bowman) Skinner Endowed Scholarship by connecting with our Office of Development and Alumni Engagement: (517) 432-1983 or