Amherst Magazine

Jeffrey F. Snyder ’60

Jeffrey F. Snyder ’60 died February 28, 2010.
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Jeffrey Flood Snyder, an innovative and eclectic writer and lawyer died on 28 February 2010 at his life-long home in Menasha, Wisconsin.  He was 71 and had been battling the affects of a stroke inflicted in 2007.
 
Jeff was born on 25 February 1939 in Chicago, Illinois to Donald Ayres Snyder, the son of a carpenter from Mount Pulaski, Illinois whose father built the stage for the Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858.   
 
Jeff went on to graduate from high school at Wayland Academy in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin in 1956.  In the fall of 1956 he entered Amherst College.  It was at Amherst that his love for words and his writing talents began to take root.  At Amherst he studied with Rolfe Humphries and Robert Frost.  Frost's poetry and persona captured Jeff's imagination and to his death he was able to rhythmically recite The Road Not Taken and Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.  In later years Jeff would found the Laura Ayres Snyder Poetry Prize at Amherst.        
 
Following graduation from Amherst with a Bachelor of Arts in English, his "writing journey," as he often termed it, took off in the summer of 1960 when, he says, he "jumped on a truck and hitch hiked west," inspired by the 1957 publishing of Jack Kerouac's On the Road.  He recounts the journey in one of his favorite original poems -The Hitch Hiker.  He arrived in San Francisco with his "trusty Singer typewriter" and, as he tells it, "a head full of ideas and a wallet empty of dollars."  After enthusiastically embracing the lifestyle of the Beat Generation and devouring the comprehensive works of Ferlinghetti and Gary Snyder, he "jumped on a railcar near Cheyenne, Wyoming and headed home."  He migrated to Iowa City, Iowa where he joined a growing community of next generation artists at the renowned Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa. 
 
Jeff's first writings were published in 1960 and in a career that lasted more than five decades his fiction received several honors including Amherst's Armstrong Poetry Prize and Corbin Prize.  He spent much of his career writing away from the limelight and applying his writing and verbal skills in what he called "other professions," most notably the law.  He was a prolific and innovative poet and author of short stories, penning several hundred works with his most productive eras coming early and late in life.   
 
A return to his Midwestern roots in Iowa triggered a flurry of writings over the next two years.  His most notable works included the short story Across the Street and into the Park and the poems Letter to MariaRetreat and Museum of Science.  He graduated with a Master of Arts in English in 1962.
 
Military conflict provided a forced detour to his formal writing career for the remainder of the 1960s.  In late 1962 he joined the United States Navy where he was commissioned as a Lieutenant Junior Grade.  Soon thereafter, he married Katharine Dynes, whom he had met through his sister Cynthia.  The young couple were dispatched to Guantanamo just months after the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962.  They were to spend the next three years at GTMO where he ran the Supply Store, used his writing talents to serve as the Director of the Cuban Adult Education School and according to him, "monitored Russian soldiers on the perimeter in his spare time."
 
In 1966 Jeff was honorably discharged from active duty and returned to his native state to attend law school at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, from which he graduated with a Juris Doctor in 1969. 
 
For the next quarter century, now with a daughter Laura and son Justin, Jeff practiced law primarily in private practice in Neenah, Wisconsin.  It was here that he became an accomplished trial attorney, advocate and negotiator, using his love of words and skill with the pen to the benefit of countless clients.  As with his innovation in poetry and short story writing, legal innovation came naturally to him.  In addition to his head office, in the mid 1970s he opened a branch office in rural Wisconsin to be closer to the farmers he often represented.  He would also become the President of the Winnebago County Bar Association.  In 1982 he was, he says, reprimanded by a trial judge for bringing the first portable computer, a 50 pound Osborne, into the courtroom.  The judge went on to say, according to him with a wry smile, that "electronic games will never be allowed in this or any other courtroom."       
 
It was also back home in Wisconsin that he re-connected with his love of the outdoors and the creative arts.  He became an avid cross-country skier in the mid-1970s, competing in the American Birkebeiner 19 times in the ensuing 30 years.  For many years he served as a competition guide to the blind in the Ski for Light program.  He also resurrected his love for sailing during the harsh Wisconsin winters and became a prominent ice-boater, deploying his creative talents and artistic eye to the handcrafting of multiple one-of-a-kind ice-boats in his woodworking shop.  Always with a knack for words he christened his favorite ice-boat Pursuit of Justice.  Through perseverance over the years as well as many a cup of hot chocolate and tin of sardines, he tirelessly passed on his love for winter sports and the cold that came with them to his children.  Into eternity, they and others will "remember to stop at all the food stations" during the course of any race or life journey. 
 
In his last two decades he wrote with increasing passion and zeal as if words were trapped in his mind with too little time to come out.  He often rose after a few hours sleep in the middle of the night to brew coffee, smoke his characteristic Marlboro’s and "scratch away" as he called it on his distinctive yellow legal pads.  His primary base during this era was Cable Farm Studios in the north woods of Bayfield County Wisconsin, where he also raised Scottish Highland Cattle.  It was the fauna and flora at Cable Farm, keenly observed during early morning walks and meandering cross-country skis through its East 40 that featured in his later works including Coming Home in December, Sonnet in January and First Snow at the Farm.  Perhaps one of his most memorable days on the East 40 was the morning he discovered a black bear den.  He documented it in photos and words through his poems The Bears and The Opening
 
At Cable Farm he continued his knack for innovation (and eccentricity) - raising organic beef, lamb and chicken as well as growing organic vegetables years before the movement became mainstream.  He also took immense joy in making distinctive rustic furniture, bowls and plates with wood he had gathered and cut from his land.  One of his most unique creations included a set of ash plates, each christened with a temperature and the feeling he felt at the time of the plate's birth.  It was also during this time that he reignited his interest in making music with the 1958 Gibson acoustic guitar that still bore the scar of a friend's high heel.  His love of music inspired him to collect (one of his favorite hobbies) multiple guitars made by the local luthier Bruce Petros.  He conceived his most famous original song, Hot in Houston, from his trademark stool in the Cable Farm kitchen one frigid January day after he had returned from visiting his son in Texas heat so searing he claimed "the devil himself would have needed air conditioning."
 
Jeff's unstoppable writing continued unswervingly until the end.  He dictated his two last poems - I Have Had Many Dreams and Ode to Naomi - from his bed to his son.
 
Jeff is survived by a daughter Laura Ayres Snyder of Providence, Rhode Island and a son Justin Bradbury Snyder of London, England, his niece Claudia Catlin Ruiz of Chicago, Illinois, his former wife Katharine Bradbury, four grandchildren - Max, Katharine, Omala, Ela, several cousins - Bruce, Grant, Karen, Gail, Carolyn, Ann and numerous loyal caregivers who supported and learned from him to the end.       

 

 

-Justin Snyder

 

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