An Imperfect Inspiration: Chess player talks about life, philosophy at Carver Hall

David Skaar sits at a picnic table between Carver and Beardshear halls for a little while every couple of days since last fall, inviting students to play and learn about chess. Skaar first learned how to play chess in 1963 when his brother taught him to play. Skaar spends his time on campus spreading his positivity and sharing his philosophies to everyone who will listen.

Makayla Tendall

“Excuse me,” David Skaar yelled to two students crossing the sidewalk near his bench. “I’ve got a handkerchief. How do you make that handkerchief dance?”

The two men paused on the sidewalk.

“You put a boogie in it!” He yelled, finishing with a shimmy.

They laughed a little nervously, smiled and left.

“Time to burn and time to choose”

From his shaded spot on the sidewalk between Carver and Beardshear halls, Skaar waits with his canvas board, wood chess set and boom box to snatch students off the sidewalk so they’ll sit with him and learn a little about chess.

The 58-year-old man has camped outside of Carver for a little while every couple of days since last fall, rattling off chess rules and history to any lucky student willing to spend a little time to hear his personal philosophies. 

“I have a lot of people come up who have played before, and some people come up and say ‘I’d like to learn.’ I say, ‘Let’s learn.’”

The former motorcycle mechanic comes to campus “where a whole city passes by in a few hours” to pass along some perspective to students, keeping them from getting lost in their social media and schedules.

“Coming on campus, there’s a culture going by here. It’s nice to say hi to people. I don’t want to get into a cold culture. I like the safety,” Skaar said of Iowa State. “I like that women can go jogging. I lived in [Los Angeles] for 18 years, and there are areas you wouldn’t want to be at night.”

The whistling tones of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” filtered through the speakers of his boom box from a CD he found at Goodwill while Skaar detailed the way he spreads his own good will.

He plays chess and disc golf and he keeps people guessing.

“I live over on Campus Avenue, kind of over in the mecca of the youth culture of Saturday night,” Skaar said. “One night I took glow sticks, broke them in half, taped them on the end and tried drumming to the drumming beat. You get the guys and the girls going by going to their parties. They say, ‘What’s up with this guy?’ I’m not there to take away their fun. You’re only young once, and I want to yell out, ‘Remember being young. Remember!’”

After more than two decades in California, Skaar moved back to Story City to take care of his father who suffered from a stroke. After seven and a half years, Skaar’s father passed away from the flu in 2010.

“Then I had to get back to the real world, but yet I couldn’t find a job as a motorcycle mechanic. The economy you know? So I went to Hubbard and trained to be a nurse’s aid,” he said.

Though Skaar’s cool stature during a game of chess may belie his nature, he doesn’t bide his time idly. Like pieces on his board, Skaar shuffles around, cataloging all kinds of information with precision and waiting for the right moment to make his move on an unsuspecting student.

“What year did Iowa State come about? Huh? 1858. It’s on a plaque in the corner,” Skaar said with a wink. “I had the mentality that I’m going to learn everything.”

For fun, Skaar studied conspiracy theorists, acts of human kindness, the history of chess and — most of all — philosophy.

“The one thing I learned about life: everybody’s got a story. I met a gentleman in Long Beach named Charlie that rode motorcycles with James Dean and Clark Gable. I met a guy that knew James Dean. I knew a guy that knew Mahatma Gandhi. Who knows Mahatma Gandhi, you know?”

As he finished, a student walked by and caught his attention.

“Have a good time in class,” Skaar yelled.

“There’s never a wish better than this”

In 1963 — 51 years ago — Skaar’s brother taught him to play chess. He’s played and studied ever since because chess is a game unlike any other, Skaar said. It speaks for life.

“With chess, there’s also a soap opera in there, which mean people can be manipulated — the history can be manipulated,” Skaar said. “Chess goes through changes, and with that it grows. It’s not a stagnant game. At 58, people still come along and beat me. One thing I teach about chess is everyone takes it on the jaw.”

The game has a way of humbling even a player with 51 years of experience under his belt, which leads to one of Skaar’s greatest philosophies: pick yourself up and keep living your life.

“Be part of the solution instead of the big problem.”

Skaar now works at Mainstream Living, taking care of five men with disabilities and handicaps where he worked a 19-hour shift after stopping by campus at 8:30 a.m. to play chess.

“You have to recognize beauty, but not just outside beauty. You’ll meet people and say what a spirit. That’s a beautiful spirit,” Skaar said. “I’m helping people who can’t take care of themselves, and that hurts in the heart.”

Skaar practices what he preaches. He used to carry around a patch kit to repair the tire of somone stranded on the side of the road. A product of the ’60s, he said he often fantasizes about writing words like “love” or “hug somebody today” around campus so that students who don’t pass by his bench will experience his positive attitude.

“I’d like to think the kindness of people speaks,” he said. “Keep busy in your life. Keep your challenges; keep your goals. Also so when you’re around people, share what you have. We aren’t insignificant in anyway. None of us are a mistake.”

Skaar is even willing to sacrifice his own self-esteem for the benefit of the young, healthy students walking past and the disabled patients for whom he cares. He understands what it is like to struggle. After his brother’s golf ball hit his eye and severed the optic nerve when he was 9, Skaar has been blind in his right eye.

But he hasn’t suffered from losing half his sight; Skaar’s penchant for personal insights was nourished.

“I see how this world bends toward perfection and I’m happy to be an imperfect person. That way, people around me go, ‘Well, I feel a little bit better because he’s not so perfect.’”

“When you’ve only got 100 years to live.”

A plaque that says “David Skaar” sits on a gravesite 28 miles north or campus.

For a man who has already purchased his gravesite, it’s safe to say Skaar is not afraid to face his death. The man who taught six women with Alzheimer’s disease to play poker is more worried about if he made his time on earth worthwhile.

“No, one thing I’ve realized in life is that you’ve got to be ready to go right now,” he said of death. “How did I fill that line that was my life, and how did I give it away to others? It’s a mental thing, you have to release your soul.”

What’s most disappointing to Skaar? The idea that others will not realize how much of a gift they have, and how much of that gift of life can be given to others, he said as he fiddled with his boom box until Five for Fighting’s “100 years” played.

“Sometimes you can come into people’s lives just for a minute and leave a little something.”

That is an important point to ingrain in students who may be likely to spiral after a failing class or an ended relationship. It’s not about one moment or one individual’s personal pain. There is a larger picture, meaning each person on this earth has an obligation to help another, he said.

And there is always hope, always a way to help.

“Robin Williams? What else could he do with his fame and fortune? At the very least, he could have made a whole bunch of chocolate chip cookies, stood on the corner and given them out,” Skaar said.  

When Skaar’s father died in 2010, his initial reaction to the call was anger. Why hadn’t anyone called him so he could have spent the last few hours with his father?

However, he said he quickly realized it didn’t matter. He would see his parents again. The important thing to remember was that he still had a life to live, people to inspire, chess to play and songs to blast out of his boom box.

“We also know that life has an angle to it. ‘We didn’t know the drunk driver was there,’” Skaar said as an example. “When death comes, it’s hopefully bliss. My life is small compared to my eternity.”

Skaar said there is hope of a higher power: God. Chess reminds him of that fact.

“You can have another bishop, another pawn,” he said, moving the pieces around the board. “But you can never have another king. In every kingdom, there’s only one king … and usually one queen unless the king is running around,” he laughed.

But is he religious? No, no, no, he said. The word religion comes from the root religio, meaning “linking back.”

“I don’t link back to anything. I’m right here,” he said, gesturing around him to campus. “Life is more than greed, more than war. Sooner or later, you’ve got to make cookies and pass them out.”

Listen to David Skaar’s favorite music by checking out a special Spotify playlist here.