Dad passed gently and quickly through death's door earlier today, three months after my book poured out my heart about this great life. After nearly dying myself in April of this year, my memoir was my chance to share a certain testimony that heaven is real and our personal greeters stand for us at the gate. But so much of the book is about a Dad who exemplified humor, humility, and optimism.
One of the most touching rewards from readers of "Love, Grandpa," are those who loved the chapters about Dad. "Do you know how special it is to read of a son's unconditional love for his dad?" one such reader asked.
He rated so highly in all of our lives that it took more than one chapter to tell his story. I provide just a sample of each of those chapters here in loving tribute.
What a wonderful thing for Dad to hear the audiobook version I recorded and finished for him in time for Thanksgiving just one month ago. He listened twice, loved it, and I hope it eased his journey home today. His blindness opened a new world of audiobooks for him (the positive way he viewed blindness in a high-tech world) and he left with a stack of more books yet to be read. -- Roger Snell
Dad's humor masks sadness and secrets
Dad’s stories of his childhood were full of laughs, practical jokes, and examples of a great life.
As I grew older and used my reporting skills for family history, I discovered sadness, secrets, and tough times that Dad avoided telling and overcame with optimism.
Digging deeper into Dad’s life added to my lofty regard for him.
Dad was born April 17, 1929. His parents, Merle (Harbaugh) and Karl Snell, divorced when Dad was 9.
Dad bounced from home to home, living mostly with grandparents Irene and Offie Harbaugh on a farm outside Williamsburg, Ohio.
He began full-time work by 16 and was living on his own or homeless in a car — something I never learned until now.
When Dad told stories of these times, it’s funny observations like his grandpa Offie Harbaugh hiding when visitors came to the farm. One moment Offie was in the living room and the next moment, when the annoying guests approached the front door, someone would ask, “Where’s Offie?”
He’d be hiding somewhere in the barn or at the back of the property, for hours, or however long the unwelcome guest stayed.
Dad’s stories of other family members included the practical jokes and rowdiness of his father, Karl, and all Karl’s brothers.
Growing up in Harveysburg, Dad knew which home cooks were likely to have a pie on the window ledge to cool. Dad helped himself, stealing pumpkin pies and earning the lifelong nickname of “Punkin” for his thefts and the roly-poly weight in his teen years.
He told of Halloween escapades where they waited for the crankiest old men in town to go to the outhouse and then overturned the toilet on its door, so the victim had to crawl out through the hole and hope not to fall in the pit. After years of doing this, one intended victim finally got even. He moved the outhouse before Halloween and carefully covered the pit with branches and leaves. One of Dad’s accomplices fell in the offal. It was awful.
Those are the light-hearted stories of a happy childhood. I pressed harder about his parents divorcing when he was 9. These were stories he hadn't told before.
“I didn’t know about it until one day I was walking down the street and an old man there, John Syford, he was talking to another guy, and I was walking by, and he said Karl and Merle’s divorce was today, and that was the first I knew about it.
“She got custody, but she said I could go wherever I wanted, and I told them I wanted to go with my Dad. Dad and I lived in the house, and we had nothing but three or four straight chairs, that’s all we had, and I had a bed, and he had a bed, and that was all we had. And this was stuff I heard on the street, somebody said, ‘Your Dad got married today, didn’t he?’ That was the first I ever knew anything about Ruby.”
This was about a year after the divorce. Newlyweds Karl and Ruby Brandenburg moved to Dayton, but the apartment didn’t allow kids.
“When they found out I was there, I had to leave. So I left, and I went with Grandpa J.W. and Grandma Osa Snell. Grandma Snell was wonderful with me, and Grandpa couldn’t get along with me. So I didn’t stay there very long. I ran off from there.”
Remember that Dad is 10 by now, without a real home, and this is a history he never told us until I pressed. When he was 11 or 12, he went back with his mother, Merle, who had married Vern Armitage.
“Vern had a filling station in Dayton, and the house was built onto the back of the filling station, so I went up there,” Dad said. “He said he would give me a job. I think I made a dollar an hour, and I could run the station on Sunday. He was never open on Sunday, but he said he’d try it, and let me run it. So I ran the filling station for a good while.”
Dad turned 16 on April 17, 1945. He was living on his own, working at Cincinnati Milling Machine. They were making axles for B-29 bombers flown by American pilots in World War II. The war ended Sept. 2, 1945.
Karl and Dad both worked there.
“I was making 75 cents an hour, and Dad was making $1.25 or $1.50 an hour, and I was thinking, ‘Oh, man, if I could ever get up to making that.’
“We’d get into work early, and I’d sit on the bench at least a half hour before work started, and a guy I liked and I read the newspaper every morning. He’d read the newspaper and hand me part of it, and I’d read it. So I started reading the newspaper every day.”
Dad had dropped out of school by now and remained humble about his lack of education. Yet he was current on all news and well read. That’s how the newspaper habit began.
“I only worked at Cincinnati Milling Machine for four or five months. When the war was over, my job quit instantly.”
He was homeless at times.
“I stayed in the car a lot of nights, a lot of time. I had all my clothes in the car. I just pulled on down a country road and would sleep. Or go to Grandma’s or Granddad’s.”
Dad inherited his dad's gift for story-telling and sisters Donna, Jackie, and I laugh every time we recount the same stories. They occurred on a remote farm. The children, always our ages, were left alone while the parents went into town on some errand.
They always went at night, and always when a storm was coming.
He never explained why this family from long ago would go into town by horse and buggy yet lost electric during the storm.
The stories always involved someone who had lost an arm and had a hook. In one tale, the children heard a voice crying out, “Where is my arm? Where is my arm?” This cry was heard over the howling wind and crashes of thunder.
Then there was a thump, thump, thump.
Something was climbing the stairs to the children’s bedroom.
It was the arm.
Dad had several surgeries over the years and large scars that resulted. I have no idea what the actual surgery was because Dad had a different story every time we would ask. It usually came up on camping trips when it was so hot and Dad was shirtless.
Every time we asked about the scar, we got a different answer — but it always involved war injuries he didn’t want to talk about — like how he was shot by Indian arrows; or in a Civil War battle; or capturing a World War II machine-gun nest; or more.
Big Red Machine
My fondest memories about baseball, though, all involve my Dad, and I appreciate these memories even more with the hindsight of a 58-year-old father and grandfather myself. I've reached the point in life where my knees buckle, and my belt won't. I get winded playing chess and remember the days of the week by the daily markings on my pill dispenser.
In my pre-teen years, Dad worked at Perfect Circle, a steel mill in Richmond, Indiana.
One evening, I got my only glimpse inside when Mom drove there to meet Dad, so we could leave on vacation, either to Texas to see Dad’s Korean War buddy Russ Daly, or for the 24-hour drive to Florida.
It was a hot summer night, so imagine how miserable it must have been inside for the workers.
A large door was open in the building. I saw a huge cauldron, mounted from the ceiling, tipped halfway over, pouring out molten, liquid steel. These lava-like drippings splattered everywhere.
It explained the tiny holes burned through all of Dad’s shirts. I never thought until years later just how his arms must have felt.
I never recall Dad complaining about that job. In fact, I never heard Dad complain about much of anything. He is cheerful, optimistic and funny in an unassuming way.
In my teen years, he had better conditions with his next job but walked at least 12 miles every day, including porch steps, delivering mail in Arcanum.
Yet Dad was in the backyard hitting or pitching every evening I can recall we had good weather. Sometimes he was so tired that he sat in a lawn chair swatting balls with a tennis racket to drive deep flies into the neighbor’s yard for me to catch.
My favorite was throwing every possible pitch I could with a Wiffle Ball to try to strike him out. Dad was a stiff opponent. He could hit for power and average, unlike today’s players. I thought it was so unusual that he was a left-handed hitter but right-handed thrower. He really had no explanation for how he learned things that way.
We never had much money, but somehow Dad got us tickets to the biggest moments in the history of the Cincinnati Reds.
He drove our 1966 Dodge Polara to the last game at Crosley Field at the corner of Findlay Street and Western Avenue on June 24, 1970.
I remember the exciting way the Reds won, with back-to-back home runs of Johnny Bench and Lee May and the high leg kick of the opposing pitcher, Juan Marichal of the San Francisco Giants. I had to look up the box score from the game to confirm the home runs came in the 8th inning and clinched a 5-4 win.
Three years later, we were at the second game of the 1972 World Series in Cincinnati on Oct. 15 when Jackie Robinson threw out the first ball.
The Reds honored the 25th anniversary of Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier. Robinson ended his own boycott of MLB public appearances, explaining during his televised speech: “I’d like to see a black manager. I’d like to live to see the day when there’s a black man coaching at third base.”
The highlight of the game, which the Reds lost, was Joe Rudi’s spectacular catch against the outfield wall to rob Denis Menke of extra bases and a certain RBI in the ninth inning. Rudi also homered.
I actually got to shake Robinson’s hand after the game, while trying to get his autograph.
Dad knew where the team locker rooms emptied into the player parking lot under Riverfront Stadium.
I ran to Robinson to get his autograph on a scorecard that already had the signatures of Dave Concepcion, Tony Perez, and Ted Kluszewski, Dad’s baseball hero who was first base coach. I also got the signature of Joe Garagiola, who called the game for NBC.
Robinson, nearly blind, said he did not want to mess up my other autographs, but he shook my hand.
Robinson died nine days later from complications with diabetes. Frank Robinson became the first black manager three years later.
A much happier post-season moment came on Oct. 4, 1975 when pitcher Don Gullett opened the National League Championship Series by homering, driving in three runs with two hits, and pitching for the win.
The Big Red Machine swept the Pirates in the NLCS and finally got their first World Series Championship against Oakland. We had tickets to one of those World Series’ games, too.
All I can remember about the 1975 World Series is that we were in the last row of the upper deck in centerfield, the farthest one could possibly get from home plate without falling into the Ohio River.
“I was teasing Jay (a family friend) about the kind of pull I had and my great connections to be able to get us tickets to the World Series,” Dad said. “And then we started climbing and climbing to our seats.”
The wind was brutal, and we caught all of it at the peak of Riverfront Stadium. It’s the coldest I ever was to see a baseball game — and I attended a Cleveland Indians’ game when it snowed years later.
My great-grandmother Irene listened to the Reds on radio all the time, first with Waite Hoyt and then in later years, Joe Nuxhall, “the old left-hander, rounding third and heading for home.”
Merle would yell at Irene about how late it was as she listened in the home they shared in Williamsburg, Ohio.
Nuxhall’s death was personal to every Cincinnati fan who grew up with or fell asleep late at night listening to the Reds. Dad and I felt like we had lost a family member.
Linda’s grandpa, Orval Starner, was old enough to have heard radio broadcasts of Babe Ruth. But his favorite was Pete Rose because of his hustle.
My heart will break each time I see a player who cheated with steroids going into the Hall of Fame while the “Hit King” has no chance because he bet to win.
I understand better why Field of Dreams is my favorite baseball movie. Kevin Costner asks the ghost of his father if he wants to play one more game of catch.
The scene is emotional because of missed opportunities in life of a father and son.
I was blessed. Dad always was ready to play catch.
Father-son college students
Dad’s humility comes from beating himself up about not finishing school.
His love of newspapers, current events, politics, and learning inspired me from childhood. His fatherly advice became my creed: “Use your brains and not your back.” No one in either side of our family had been to college. There was never any doubt to him that I would go.
In the most unexpected twist of all, we would both end up on the dean’s list in college because of our straight A’s.
Dad succeeded because of enduring optimism.
“I went to ninth grade and then quit,” Dad said.
“When I lived with Dad and Ruby in Monterey (Ohio), (half-sister) Judy was with us. I would get on the bus to school, and I’d ride a couple of blocks where there was a grocery store where they picked up other kids, and I would get off there after he had just picked me up.
“I would go into the grocery store, and this old, crippled guy and his sister ran the grocery store. He and I would sit there on a bench and play checkers all day, and she would always make me a bologna sandwich or something to eat.
“And then when the bus would come back at 3 o’clock or whatever, it would stop to let kids off, I’d get back on and ride up to my house, and he’d let me out.
“But the heck of it was that finally Judy got to ratting on me," Dad said, laughing.
“I did all right as a (high school) freshman, but I didn’t like science. That science teacher would give me a test paper, and I’d hand back a blank paper.
“He told Dad, ‘I can’t do anything with him,’ but yet again the superintendent of the school taught math, and I loved math.
“He said, ‘We got a kid here who is a freshman in this school, and I want to bring him in here (and this was a room of seniors) and I want you to race him on adding figures, he’s fast and good.’”
“This was the time I wouldn’t do other studies but I could do my math. I’d go in, and I had to race these seniors. I beat all of them.
“I didn’t like English, but I liked the teacher, who sat down with me and cried. She said, ‘I know that you can do this work, but you won’t do it.’ She was crying, trying to talk to me, and I wouldn’t do it. I didn’t like English.
“They passed me on to sophomore, and the sophomore year I refused to go. That’s when I went to work at Cincinnati Milling Machine.”
The Snells come from a long line of scholars. My favorite story is from class when Dad’s uncle and Karl’s brother, Louis, was asked about William Shakespeare’s play, “Julius Caesar.”
Caesar says, “Even you, Brutus?” as he is being stabbed to death by a supposed friend. “Et tu, Brute?” are the actual Latin words used by Shakespeare.
When the teacher asked Louis what Caesar said when Brutus stabbed him, Louis answered: “Ouch.”
Despite the spotted Snell history of scholarship, father and son ended up in college at the same time.
Fifteen miles a day carrying a mail bag took their toll, and Dad needed leg surgery.
The post office never gave him a chance to recover and made no serious attempt to accommodate him.
He was forced out on disability but was required to take career training courses at a local community college, Edison State in Piqua, Ohio.
“I liked history when I was out of work, and they sent me to Edison State.
“‘You need to go to college,’ the employment woman said.”
“I haven’t even finished high school.” She said, ‘We’ll take care of that.’”
“I decided to take the GED (high school equivalency exam). I thought they’d have to send me for some schooling.”
He passed easily on the first try.
“This job counselor said you need to go to college. I said, ‘Yeah, right,’ and she got me into Edison State.”
Before Dad knew about needing leg surgery, he had withdrawn what little money was left in savings to pay off the last two or three months remaining on the 15-year home mortgage.
That only added to his staggering financial setback. His decline in income increased my chance to afford to be the first in either side of our family to go to college. Grants and a scholarship based on low income covered about half of my costs, and my three jobs covered the rest.
We made the dean’s list in the same semester, this guy who had beaten himself up for never finishing high school and thinking he had no brains, just brawn.
My sister, Donna, was listening to this interview, and Dad said this to get a rise out of her.
“I was a whiz in accounting,” he said.
Laughing, Donna said, “He was horrible. He might have liked math. I would come home from high school and my accounting class and had to sit with him at the table and work on his accounting.”
Dad added: “I got good grades in English. I hated history until I got there, and it was interesting. I didn’t pay any attention to it before.
“And then I made the dean’s list.”
This was around 1979 when I was 20, and a sophomore at The Ohio State University. Dad was a college freshman and 50.
An amused Donna couldn’t restrain herself: “Talk about your typewriter class.”
Dad replied: “I wanted to learn to type. I really wanted to learn, so I went to typing. I wasn’t getting good grades in that, but I was trying.
“This teacher, when she talked, she would jerk her head. I told this girl that sat behind me, ‘One of these days — she wore a wig — she’s going to jerk her head and her wig is going to take off across the room.’”
“Then we were taking a timed test on the typewriter. You don’t look at the typewriter. You look at what you’re typing. The bell would ring, and I’d flip the carriage.
“I go on and the bell would ring, and I’d flip the carriage. Man, I was going to town, and when we got done, I had a whole sheet of paper with maybe one word or half a word on a line. I thought I had a whole line, and I had just a few letters on it. That was my speed test.”
“The girl behind me got so tickled and got to laughing so much, she had to move. It was her bell that was ringing, and I flipped my carriage. Every time her bell rang, I thought it was mine. She moved clear to the back of the room.
“I made it through the typing, but I didn’t set any records.”
He did set records in math.
“I was doing great in that, but I wouldn’t do it the way he wanted, that new math stuff. I said I can get the answer the way that I do it.
“So one day we were doing a thing, and I had the right answer.”
“‘Snell, would you go up to the board and show these kids how you figured that out,’ and I said, ‘No.’”
“That’s all I did, and all the kids around me were laughing. And he never said another word.
“On a final test one time, I was done, I took my paper up and walked out and was going down the hall, and he came out and said, ‘How in the world did you get that done that fast?’ I said, ‘Well, it was simple.”’
Calm amid the storms
Dad was standing in front of the rubble of the only home he had ever owned since 1959.
The Dayton television reporter asked him what the tornado sounded like that ripped through the middle of Arcanum on Nov. 22, 1992.
There’s a slight grin, a sparkle in his eye and a television first.
“Like a tornado,” Dad replied.
Unlike any other tornado victim, Dad’s description was that it was like no train, no bomb, or anything as loud, ground-shaking, or ear-popping as the tornado that tore most of the second floor off our home and dropped it in the middle of our neighbor’s home across East George Street.
Mom, Dad, and Donna crowded into the tiny closet under the stairway as the EF-3 funnel cloud approached at 7 p.m. that Sunday.
Dad said it was like the house was breathing in and out until the windows blew and the suction almost pulled him out as he braced to hold the closet door closed. Ear-piercing screams were the noise that century-old square nails made when the roof ripped off.
The home was knocked off the foundation, destroyed, and yet a fragile, glass-globed, kerosene lantern was unmoved on the kitchen island, still lit.
Dad’s sense of humor and inability to be rattled were caught on camera, aired nationally, and repeated when the Dayton station did its anniversary story of the tornado that destroyed dozens of homes, removed century-old shade trees in numerous neighborhoods, but only hurt one child whose eye was irritated by debris.
Canceled checks from Dad’s desk drawer were found a few miles away in the field of a farmer who said they came fluttering down like snow.
I made it home in time to write a story for the Akron Beacon Journal, noting how childhood friend Mike Bevins walked with me in what little remained of my bedroom, open to the sky, insulation sticking to everything and debris everywhere.
“Looks the same as when you lived here,” Mike said.
Dad jokes in the face of adversity. But I saw him as frail and vulnerable for the first time as he recovered from open-heart surgery over 30 years ago.
He even handled that smoothly, with rapid recovery, feeling better in strength and health than imagined.
When I first had kidney stones, a frequent problem for Dad, I joked, “How come I inherit your diseases but none of your money?”
Second only to baseball in the backyard was the fun we had together for seven days in San Francisco after I won the top national award from the American Bar Association (ABA) for investigative reporting.
As part of the Silver Gavel award, all expenses were paid for a guest and me. Linda didn’t want to fly, so I tapped Dad as my guest.
It remains such a highlight of life for both of us. The story includes Hillary Clinton, Thurgood Marshall, and barking seals.
The story began when the ABA voted my series of stories about ethical abuses on the Ohio Supreme Court as the best investigative reporting of the year. Joining me on stage were James Stewart, who won as author of the year for “Den of Thieves,” and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Marshall, who won for lifetime achievement.
I needed to attend only two events during the seven-day conference, hosted at the downtown Hilton.
It was easy to get lost in the massive hotel. Somehow, Dad and I got twisted around, then switched from one set of elevators to the stairs, so we could get to another bank of elevators.
We reached the stairway landing, opened the door and turned the corner to enter open elevator doors where then-First Lady Hillary Clinton was standing.
The urgent glances of Secret Service agents hinted the floor was supposed to be clear. One agent politely but aggressively directed us to another set of elevators.
If only they had known Dad's views of Clinton, they should have wrestled him to the ground just for the sake of it.
We made the best of our time as tourists, eating the best seafood at the pier, sampling chocolate at Ghirardelli Square, but unable to get passes to tour Alcatraz Prison because of the crowds.
We remained on Eastern time, up for breakfast by 3 or 4 in the morning Pacific time. We caught a cab at 5 a.m. to take us to the ocean.
The amused cabbie somehow guessed we weren’t from those parts but dutifully dropped us at the fog-enshrouded shore. We could see only a fisherman, the edge of where water met sand, and fog.
We walked and walked until we got to the outer limit of the bus line, at a rocky ocean overlook. We heard barking seals but never saw them. We had to wait an hour or so before the first bus was even running to get back into town.
We laughed about being such hayseeds, fresh off the turnip truck, turned loose in a city. Kind of like when I got on a Washington, D.C. elevator with then-Secretary of State George P. Shultz. I was dressed for vacation in a flowery shirt and shorts, clutching a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
As busy as life was, there were not many chances for father and son to spend seven days together uninterrupted by any other cares.
Whenever the two of us are together, we fill a room with laughter and talk of current events.
But hugs, love, and talking religion were never part of the bond. Dad didn’t need to talk about what he lived by example.
Mom never missed church, and we had no choice in the matter, although I don’t remember any of us fussing about attending the Trinity United Methodist Church in Arcanum.
Mom sang in the choir.
Once Dad had regular hours with the post office, he also was there every Sunday.
Mom’s faith was obvious, but not advertised like Grandma Wogoman, whose well-worn Bible was always with her.
Dad sang in the choir of the Methodist Church in Harveysburg before his parents divorced when he was 9.
Although he bounced from home to home, he attended church with each family member and was baptized while in Monterey, Ohio.
My great-grandma Irene went every Sunday to the Presbyterian Church in Williamsburg, Dad said.
My other great-grandparents, Osa and J.W., attended in Harveysburg, he said.
“(Dad’s uncle) Glenn used to tell about Grandpa (J.W.) leaving church, and people would go up and shake hands with the preacher and stuff, and Grandpa Snell walked up and said, ‘Boy, that was a lousy sermon you had today.”’
During the Korean Conflict, when Osa was dying of cancer, Dad won emergency leave from his Army base in Alaska. His buddies pooled what little money they had to help Dad buy his train ticket.
He remembered another act of kindness.
“That’s when I got on the train and I sat with an older woman. She probably wasn’t very old, but I thought she was.”
He declined breakfast when she headed to the dining car.
Then he declined lunch, too.
“So that went by and then that evening, they called for the evening meal, and she said, ‘Are you going back for supper?’ And I said, ‘No.’”
“She said, ‘Have you got any money?’ And I said, ‘No.’”
“That woman took me back, and bought me a big meal and that got me on home. I’ll never forget that.”
Dad made a friendship in Korea that has continued six decades with Russ Daly, who became a top executive with one of the world’s largest grain companies.
Dad was drafted and went by bus from Cincinnati to Fort Knox, Kentucky, and then to Colorado by train for basic training.
“After we got on ship in Seattle, our orders said we were going to the Far East, and we were supposed to go to Japan and get two weapons and two weeks training and then on to Korea.
“As soon as we got on the ship and got out to sea, we had just got away from the dock, not too far, they said our orders had been changed, and we were going to Alaska. And that’s where we went.”
Dad was there with Russ for 17 months — two years of total service including basic training.
Russ was a brain who was promoted to sergeant and moved to the officers’ barracks. Russ taught Information and Education classes to Army grunts like Dad.
Their war stories get more heroic with each telling, according to Russ’ wife, Loah.
Dad said he doesn’t like to talk about his war injury — a broken ankle skiing downhill.
“Then there was a night that Russ got in a fight.
“There was this great big guy from Chicago. He used to brag about all the gangs he was with and smoking pot and stuff.
“But, boy, he did not like Russ. He was in our barracks, the barracks I lived in, and this must have been on a Saturday night, it had to be. Russ came into our barracks — he was a sergeant then — to see me. But he was drunk. He was loaded.
“And old Viola Bock I guess saw here’s his chance. So he came up and started an argument. I don’t even know what it was about him with Russ. And Russ said, ‘Then do something about it.’”
“And he said, ‘But you’ve got them stripes.’
“‘Don’t worry about them,’ and Russ grabbed his stripes and ripped them off.
“I thought, oh, my God, that guy will kill him. And he said, ‘C’mon.’
“I left the barracks because I knew …”
“Well, there’s more of the story. I went out and went over to the latrine and stayed over there until I thought it should be long enough, and I came back and I walked in and clear down to the end of the barracks underneath a clothes rack was him and Russ, and Russ on top of him, beating the holy crap out of him, and he said, ‘Just tell me when you’ve had enough.’ Pow! He’d just knock the crap out of him. And he told him, ‘Now?’”
“And he was beat. He really beat him up. He had to have some kind of surgery done on his cheek.”
Russ loves recounting the story of how poor a wing man Dad was.
“I can’t believe you went out and left me in here, and you took off,” Russ would say.
“I just couldn’t stand to see you get beat up,” Dad said.