When he spoke in his hometown April 23, Husker head football coach Scott Frost singled out a longtime member of the Wood River community.
Frost praised Jim Skeen, who has been shooting Wood River High School sports for 30 years. Some people refer to Skeen as “Killer.”
“I think anybody who had any success can look back and pick out one person that people might not know about that made a huge difference in someone’s life,” Frost said. “And being back here and getting reminded of it, I don’t think I’d be where I am without Killer.”
Standing at the podium in Babel’s Barn, Frost smiled and waved at Skeen.
“I was shocked when he did that,” Skeen said, remembering the evening.
As he sees it, he is “just the cameraman.” But he has captured almost every Wood River High School football game, volleyball match and boys and girls basketball game since 1989.
During the welcome home celebration for Frost, an old video was played on the large screens, showing Wood River athletes surprising Skeen with a birthday gift at his home in 1990. The players, including Frost, gave Skeen a Wood River jacket.
“It was an honor. I wasn’t expecting it,” Skeen says now. His son, Greg, captured the experience on videotape.
“He’s a very emotional man,” said Derek Apfel, a longtime friend. There were tears in Skeen’s eyes when the players, who included Apfel, gave him the jacket.
“And he’s very appreciative of everything anybody’s ever done for him,” Apfel said.
He and the other players just wanted to get together and give Skeen the jacket.
“It was just simply from us, for all he did. He was with us everywhere we went,” Apfel said.
The athletes all respect Skeen.
“We love the guy,” Apfel said, noting that Skeen would sometimes leave work early to get to their games.
He made it easy on student managers. Back then, the seventh- and eighth-graders were supposed to videotape basketball, and they weren’t very interested in the job.
“And when Jim did it, it was very well done,” Apfel said.
Skeen took the job seriously. He “gave the coaches something to watch, and when they’d send out tapes to other schools, other schools would comment how good our tapes were, because Jim did them.”
“He’s just always been about Wood River, and the pride of Wood River,” Apfel said, noting that he has been doing it for three decades. “And he’s still doing it.”
In addition to capturing games on tape, Skeen is also a Wood River sports historian. His recall of seasons and individual games is extraordinary.
Skeen, 68, recently left his job at the north Walmart store in Grand Island, where he had worked 12 years. Before that, he worked at New Holland for 35 years, from 1971 to 2006.
He graduated from Wood River High School in 1969. He has two grown children, Cathi and Greg, who live in western Iowa.
His sports video experience began when his kids were playing Y basketball.
Technology has steadily evolved over the years. In 1986, when the Wood River girls basketball team made it to the state tournament, Skeen rented a camcorder from Skagway.
He hasn’t missed many games since 1989. But he has never been paid by the school. He has never even asked for a salary.
Skeen also shoots Wood River’s commencement, honors night and athletic banquet. He gives copies of the graduation video to every family who wants one. It’s good if a parent drops off a blank DVD for him to copy it onto, but it’s not essential.
Now, game videos are available online through such services as Hudl and Striv.
But in the days of videocassette recorders, Skeen had to put in some long nights.
If the Eagles played a football game at Loup City or Burwell, Skeen might not get home until midnight. He then had to rewind the tape and make copies. He delivered two copies of the game to Scott Frost’s father, Larry, who was eager to look at the game. “He was a 24-7 guy,” Skeen says of the former coach.
On those nights, Skeen might not get done until 2 a.m. That was fine, assuming he didn’t have to work the next morning at New Holland.
He has been riding the bus to Wood River games since 2006.
Skeen sits behind the driver. Sometimes the driver doesn’t know where to park at road games. Skeen gives the driver directions, because he has visited the schools so many times. When the bus arrives, he lets all the players get out before he departs the bus.
Because of a cataract, Skeen no longer has vision in his right eye. But the vision in his left eye is 20-15.
At most schools, video is shot by students.
“I haven’t met anybody older than me filming,” he said.
Skeen doesn’t like to drive at night anymore. But he won’t be hanging up his camera anytime soon “because I’ve been doing it so long I don’t want to quit.”
His “Killer” nickname dates back to his senior year of high school. As a class project, he learned how to box. He went up against a guy who was expected to beat him.
“I upset him,” Skeen said.
But Killer isn’t his only nickname. Wood River graduate Matt Gideon calls him “Skeener Vision.”
Skeen doesn’t just make sure his video is in focus. He’s also very focused about his work.
Gideon, who graduated in 1993, said Skeen was a fun part of “our time in high school. He really was passionate about doing his job. He loved the camaraderie with the kids and (was) just fun to be around.”
Skeen’s greatest athletic memory revolves around his daughter. In her senior year in a game at Loup City, Cathi stepped up to the line for two pressure-packed free throws. The Eagles were down by two with one second left. She made both of them. Wood River won in overtime, 52-50.
“That was the biggest game of my life,” he said.
Skeen shoots many weddings and receptions. He’s shot 12 weddings involving Zavalas.
In the past, he shot weddings at a variety of places. But he now confines himself to Babel’s Barn.
Skeen also helps Apfel with funerals.
Former Wood River volleyball coach Peg Heise said Skeen has always been willing to give of his time.
“His dedication is unbelievable,” Heise said.
“Jim is a rare find in today’s world,” said Wood River graduate Tom Van Winkle.
Somebody who’s going to give up that much time for the betterment of kids is awesome, Van Winkle said.
Now, coaches use Hudl to evaluate game film. But Skeen was at it well before that.
“He gave up his time to do that for Wood River and definitely made us a better basketball team” by allowing the players to look at their games, said Van Winkle, who now teaches and coaches in David City.
He said Skeen is “definitely a hidden gem.”
Apfel said Skeen has always been involved in things in Wood River “and trying to help everybody out.”
“It’s just a respect that we all had for him because he has always been with us and always behind us and for us,” he said. “He is beloved by the people of Wood River, and just like Scott Frost is Wood River, so is Jim Skeen Wood River.”