For the past five months, a variety of articles have appeared on The Community Voice’s page three in a column titled “Café Espresso.” Most of this newspaper’s writers have contributed weekly to the column. These features commemorate Jud Snyder and his irreplaceable column “Coffee Grounds.”
This month marks the first anniversary of Jud’s passing. The newspaper, the community, and humanity, in general, continue to note the loss of the grumpy and cynical but idealistic writer, philosopher and artist. A bench installed at the community center and a plaque in the Spreckels theater honor Jud for his 50-plus years of service.
Along with his 50 years of writing in this community, Jud left behind his art. Pen-and-ink drawings were his specialty. He focused on rural scenes of Sonoma County, especially barns. Jud even advertised his drawings under “Sonoma County Barns: Vanishing Rural Architecture,” offering such pictures as “Collapsing shed, Stony Pt. near Lowell Ave.” Jud captured elegant dilapidation using light and dark to show order succumbing to time and wear.
This past December Jud’s nephew, Tim McGuire of Liverpool, New York, contacted me because I had described in an article Jud’s drawing of Henrik Ibsen taking a morning walk. An unusual subject for Jud who specialized in cows, barns and country scenes. McGuire asked if I would send him a picture of the Ibsen. Then he made a wonderful offer: he sent me six pictures of Jud’s drawings and told me that I could select two.
I chose two rural scenes, one with cows and a barn, and one with a barn only as Jud experimented in his last years with color. The first one, a typical Sonoma County setting, pen and ink only, offers a symmetrical but three-dimensional view of an aging fence strung together with wire missing boards and tilting with time in the foreground. Two cows graze quietly in the left center framed by an imposing but gracefully aging barn and shed in the upper half surrounded by unkempt but natural vegetation in the top left and top right of the picture.
The picture depicts Jud’s love of nature, old barns and just enough unruliness to defy all of the rules of human orderliness. The old fence crosses the border, not intruding but wandering beyond limits like a newsman stepping across boundaries slightly to prod a little further to enhance his story.
My number one pick, a partial scene of another barn shows overgrowth of vegetation in the foreground, demonstrates Jud’s later life technique of coloring in the pen-and-ink drawing slightly. Tall, stringy weeds stretch behind an aging, dilapidated fence. The barn, centered with darkness, appears to be abandoned, inviting a boy’s delightful exploration of, perhaps, a haunted structure. Yet, the roof and walls retain a solid look to hint that the barn has not been long in disuse. The green hues invest the scene with life.
Visual poetry speaks to the viewer, not the artist. Just as the newsman surrenders his stories for publication knowing that readers will pick apart words and phrases, so the artist relinquishes his interpretation to his viewer. Order and unruliness, precision and a wisp of anarchy characterize Jud’s art, his career, and his life.
Jud’s nephew sent me another treasure, one of Jud’s pens he used for creating his drawings. McGuire wrote to me, “Note the yellow paint on the handle. Jud started adding colors to his existing drawings late in his life.” This pen and the colored in pen-and-ink drawing are special editions to my Snyder collection as they say so much about this wonderful man who wrote and drew to the end of his ninety-two years of life. Jud always sought to improve and develop, to change and grow, his unspoken but modeled recipe for living the good life.
My friend, editor, and colleague, Irene Hilsendager, has a very late work of Jud’s. This picture shows a burning barn. During his last months, the newsman covered the fires and the artist recorded the impact of the fire, destroying a beloved barn.
Judson Snyder, I knew him as our community newsman for more than forty years. Twenty years ago, I learned that he was an artist who had many of his drawings on display at the community center. But little did I know about his other half century of life.
Snyder, born August 12, 1925, in Long Island, New York, had three sisters. His father, a professional photographer, and his mother, a journalist, modeled his interests and his career. After he graduated from high school in 1943, he enlisted in the Navy and served in the Pacific Theater. “Jud’s only wartime injury happened when a typhoon blew an outhouse roof section against his tent,” said his nephew, Tim McGuire.
After the war, Snyder studied journalism at Hostra College and later graduated from New York University. He married Marie Pauline Xavier in 1950, and the two stayed together for nearly sixty years until Pauline died June 19, 2010. The Snyders moved to California in 1957 as a result of an incident one snowy winter when Jud had to get out of his car and install tire chains to get up the hill to his job.
Jud recalled Pauline’s support throughout his career. “She was always with me providing support no matter where I went in my journalistic pursuit. From sports reporting in New York to ‘non-profits’ like jazz or left-wing radio stations to UHF TV stations and weekly newspapers in California where you work 60 hours a week and still wonder if you’ll be able to pay the rent.” Pauline could often be seen riding with Jud in his little car as he covered stories. And for a half century, he covered Cotati and Rohnert Park.
There are so many things to appreciate and miss about Judson Snyder. He served as the editorial conscience of our community. He looked for truth and clarity, and he looked beyond the “official position” presented by the “dignitaries,” often to the point where he “offended” the power brokers. One example serves to show what Jud did hundreds of times.
In one of his last columns, just after his ninety-second birthday, Jud told the story of his attempt to interview the school district superintendent, Robert Haley. He reported that Haley “refused to talk to me and had one of his aides read me a statement outlining his position. . . It didn’t help much for it’s written in district speak, a very close imitation of city hall speak where a translator is needed so it can be read by an average newspaper reader.” Jud’s task and his method always were to get past the verbiage and get to the truth so that the reader could know clearly what was happening.
Newsman, artist, philosopher and humanitarian Judson Snyder left a legacy of stories, opinions, drawings and democratic beliefs. One year later, we realize that we had our own William Allen White working for all of us. What White did for Emporia, Kansas, Jud did for the communities of Rohnert Park and Cotati as he was a spokesman, artist and philosopher for the average citizen, and his legacy is not replaceable.
We will all recall Jud when we read the local paper or see an aging barn or walk along one of our creeks, a humble man who prized truth, humanity and the past. Jud helped make Cotati and Rohnert Park unique communities.