William Davis Snider, 1921-2012

Benevolence and Responsibility

A eulogy delivered at the First Presbyterian Church of Greensboro,
Jan. 30, 2012, by Edwin M. Yoder Jr. ’56

I take my guidance this morning from two literary giants that Bill Snider would surely approve of. Dr. Johnson said of Milton’s Paradise Lost, “No man ever wished it longer than it is.” Mark Twain said, “Few sinners are saved after the first ten minutes of a sermon.”

Accordingly, I shall be brief.

In the first place, Bill wrote his own eulogy, in measured installments, over a lifetime of distinctive commentary. He was a master of the informal scene, closely observed. He was so little burdened by self-importance that he indeed saw others, and life itself, whole, in all dimensions. Bill went nowhere in our beloved state, from Manteo to Murphy, without seeing what was amusing, interesting and often charming. And writing it down. We used to joke, in the Daily News editorial department, that no one knew his thoughts before “running it through the typewriter.” It is a true saying. And what came running from Bill’s typewriter was always superb.

An example:

In his preface to Light on the Hill, his evocative bicentennial history of UNC, he tells how he and Flo took their daughter Jane to enroll at Chapel Hill exactly 30 years after he came to that magic place — a fresh and unseasoned boy from Rowan County, to hear him tell it. As he carried Jane’s luggage into Spencer Hall, he saw Ms. Cornelia Phillips Spencer, for whom the hall is named, looking down from her portrait, through her “silver eyeglasses.” A fine touch, that. Bill’s and my great teacher of writing at Chapel Hill, Phillips Russell, insisted: “be specific.” Not mere glasses, but “silver eyeglasses.”

This preface is otherwise moving, as well, because it is the autobiography of a developing mind and soul. Bill writes:

As World War II unfolded, golden Chapel Hill became linked with bloody Europe. I glanced out of my third-story window in Old East one morning to see a disturbing site. Lee Manning Wiggins Jr., a classmate, had planted the lawn under the great trees of McCorkle Place, with small white crosses [symbolizing] the graves of American boys who would be slaughtered if we followed FDR’s counsel to protect Great Britain from Nazi Germany.

Bill goes on to describe his evolution in those early years of Nazi conquest from what then was called “isolationism” to a sudden realization that “some things … could be worse than war. Allowing democracy to die in Europe was one of them.”

That experience was typical of the growth that so many of us have experienced at “golden Chapel Hill.” It taught a lesson from which Bill never retreated: That civilization itself is precious and fragile and of a piece; that as John Donne wrote we are not islands but parts of the mainland and none of it is lost without diminishing all.

I have known Bill, as friend, mentor and colleague for half a century. He often recalled how I first knocked on the door of his office at the Daily News to submit a piece on Thomas Wolfe. I was then, I believe, a freshman; and it was written in freshman’s prose. Fortunately, Bill had the taste to see how bad it was, and the tact to reject it gracefully.

I skip on to a happy day in May 1961, a decade later, when I returned to this, my native city, to write for the Daily News under the gentle tutelage of Bill and Slim Kendall. Slim, who spoke of the editorial department’s “apostolic succession,” recalled the laconic guideline of his own mentor, Col. Earl Godbey: “Write what you think, but try to think sanely.” It was the only admonition. I was then 26, and it was an emancipation for a brash young editorialist.

A professional connection soon deepened into a personal one. It became obvious to Jane and me that the care of Bill and Flo included wonderful after-hours benefits. A friendship grew, in turn, into virtual parenthood. Who, in a life crowded with blessings, has ever had a greater blessing than to be the honorary children of Bill and Flo Snider?

But back for a moment to that glad May day. Bill had served as private secretary to two N.C. governors. He knew N.C.’s history, political traditions and customs intimately and had a fund of funny stories about the governors he had served, chiefly Greg Cherry, who was known as the “iron major.” Here is one story. Bill was ghostwriting Governor Cherry’s important addresses, one of which was to be delivered in Chapel Hill on the occasion of the Max Gardner Award. The faculties of what was then known as the Greater University were assembled in their finery. Bill had been reading Arnold Toynbee’s Study of History and sprinkled references to that work through the iron major’s formal address — I suppose to add a note of learning and elegance. Alas, the governor, who liked his toddy and may have had one or two, startled, then amused, the assembled eggheads by referring, several times, to Professor Tony-bee! These memories may add a touch of the humor that was so typical of Bill’s unwavering high spirits.

There is a Latin adage, “Speak only good of the dead.” Surely few, if any, ever spoke ill of Bill Snider; for there was no ill to speak. He was benevolence itself. Yes, some misguided wretch, in the dark of night, once threw a brick through a bedroom window at his house in Kirkwood when the South was trying to measure up to its ideals, and racial tensions ran high, even here, even in civilized Greensboro.

Bill’s editorial advocacy in that cause — the cause of dignity for all, and adherence to the rule of law — was honorable and steady. It reflected those ideals of “light and liberty” — lux/libertas — engrossed on the great seal of UNC and upheld by so many great figures, including Dr. Frank Graham, my father’s hero as he was of Bill’s father also.

The leadership of the Daily News, moderately but firmly asserted, was crucial to the peace that now prevails. In this Bill collaborated with others whom I was honored to know — Ed Hudgins, Mac Smith, Rich Preyer, Sam Proctor, Tarte Bell, Ben Smith, McKibben Lane, and others. On May 17, 1954, they resolved that this city would not be disgraced by scofflawism; and it never was. They rose to their responsibilities and were true to the best values of our civilization.

For me, a familiar passage in the Book of Ecclesiasticus suggests their measure: “Let us now praise famous men, our forefathers in their generations. …[who] directed the people by their advice, by their understanding … and by the wise words of their teachers … All these were honored in their generation and were the glory of their day.”

All are gone now, Bill being perhaps the last of that great procession to leave us. In their memory we may perhaps be permitted to say: Give them peace, O Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon them.

— Edwin M. Yoder Jr.

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