Saturday, January 5, 2013

My brother Nevin

My brother Nevin died Wednesday afternoon, Jan. 2, at Fellowship Manor in Whitehall, Pa. He was 84.

Nevin served as a pastor in Pennsylvania, where he grew up, before becoming a full-time army chaplain.

As a chaplain, his tours of duty included Vietnam and Thailand.

He was chaplain to the soldiers who fought in the Battle of Ia Drang where 72 American soldiers died, the first big loss of American lives in the Vietnam War. This battle was the basis for the movie We Were Soldiers, although the movie distorted the facts of the battle to try to make the story more upbeat.

It was not an upbeat story except for the honor of the soldiers who served and died. Retired General Hal Moore tells the real story in his book We Were Soldiers Once ... And Young on which the movie was loosely based.

The night before the battle, Nevin served communion to some of the 72 men who died the next day. After the battle, he was called upon to identify their bodies.

He told me that he smoked a cigar while identifying the bodies because the cigar smoke masked the smell of death. Otherwise, he said, he would have vomited. Better to look manly smoking a cigar than to break down. 

Nevin once admitted to me that he never expected to come home from his tours in southeast Asia. He talked about a sniper bullet flying so close to his face that he could feel its wake.

After he retired from the army, he served three appointments in the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church. I think his favorite may have been the Swan Quarter Charge --four rural churches-- in Hyde County, NC. He got up very early every morning and had coffee with the farmers at the local marina. He felt at home with farmers.

Every summer a student from the Duke Divinity School, sponsored by the Duke Endowment, came and worked with him. He loved having seminary students around during his years at Swan Quarter.

We'd visit him there and go fishing in the Pamlico Sound. If the fish were hitting, we'd stay out in his little boat so long we'd have trouble finding our way back in the dark.

One of the most pleasant memories of my teen years was when he was stationed in Norfolk, Va., early in his career as a chaplain. My parents, sister, and I visited Nevin and he and I went pier fishing overnight, just the two of us. It was the first time I'd ever stayed up all night. I can't remember what we talked about or whether we caught anything, but it was a special night for me.

Nevin was 19 years older than I am. He was such a rascal growing up that my parents had become quite mellow by the time I came along. He made things easier for me.

When Nevin was a boy, our family did not yet have indoor plumbing. Once when my mother was using the outhouse, he opened the door a few inches and put a skunk he had tamed (he loved animals and they tended to love him; apparently this baby skunk followed him everywhere) in the outhouse with her. She was not happy.

She was even more upset another time when she found out a few days after the fact that Nevin had washed the farm dog in the spring that was the source of the family drinking water. Years later my mother would still get sick to her stomach whenever that story was repeated.

Against my mother's preferences, he decided he wanted to make some money by tending bees. He showed up at the backdoor of the farmhouse one afternoon covered in bees like an extra layer of clothing. My panicking mother had no idea what to do. Thinking about it still upset her years later. No bees for me.

A teenaged Nevin sneaked out of the house after dark one snowy night to go sledding. He had to confess when he had a broken arm the next morning.

He attended Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa. He did not get good grades his first semester. My father claimed it was because he was playing around too much. During semester break, my father assigned him the work of cleaning all the manure out of all the stables in the barn. About the third day of cleaning stables, my father said he overheard Nevin muttering that he wasn't going to do this the rest of his life. The next semester his grades were excellent.

He made spending money in college posing as a male model for art classes. He never would admit to me whether or not he posed nude. I wouldn't be surprised. 

He was studying to be a lawyer when he experienced a strong sense of call to ministry during an extended revival at the Salem Evangelical United Brethren Church in Slatedale, Pa., our family's home church. Instead of law school, he enrolled in Evangelical Seminary on the campus of Albright College that later moved to Dayton and merged with another seminary to become United Theological Seminary.

As a seminary student he served a small country church in Kempton, Pa. While he was preaching, the farmers would sit around the potbellied stove at the back of the church and squirt their chewing tobacco into the stove. His sermons were punctuated with the sounds of spits and hisses.

He once invited a Jewish college friend who was visiting for the weekend to a Sunday evening service at the church. Perhaps assuming he was also a seminary student, the lay leader presiding at the service called on Nevin's friend to pray the pastoral prayer. Nevin's friend had never even heard a pastoral prayer before. He'd never been to a church service and not very often to a synagogue service. After a long pause, Nevin's friend stood up and thanked God for the sunshine (pause) and the rain (pause) and for people (pause) and for animals (pause) and for anything else that he could think of. He finally just sat down. It was the sort of awkward but harmless circumstance Nevin found very amusing. Nevin laughed for decades about the look on his friend's face when he was called upon to pray in public in a Christian church service.

Nevin had four daughters: Sheryl, Carole, Lori, and Linda. The death of his granddaughter Serena in a car accident was a great grief for Nevin. He kept her picture in his living room. Visiting him during his later years in Florida when his health was weakening, I would sometimes see him pick up the picture and stare at it.

Nevin came to stay with us in Washington once when there was a reunion of the soldiers who had fought in the Battle of Ia Drang. Early one morning, we stood together at the Memorial Wall where the names of the soldiers who died in that battle are engraved. A survivor of that battle who'd sung often for Nevin at chapel services in Vietnam sang Amazing Grace. General Moore spoke a few words. There was a trumpet.  Mostly we stood together in silence without words.

Nevin told me that he had not let himself feel anything for many years after his time in Vietnam. It took him almost a lifetime to realize how much grief, pain, and survivor's guilt he carried inside.

After his retirement from the North Carolina Conference, he moved to Florida with his wife Rose where he was active at the First United Methodist Church of Melbourne. He helped organize the church's Stephen Ministry. However, most of his time in Florida was spent with veterans. He was the chaplain of several veterans' groups. He wrote a column for a veterans' publication. He did weddings and funerals for veterans who had no church they were comfortable going to.

Perhaps the best tribute to Nevin's life I've read is this email that one of the veterans he worked with in Florida sent to the members of one of Nevin's groups:
Gentleman...would you please get the word to !st Cav Trooper's that Chaplain Nevin Snyder,my old friend, and 1/7th Chaplain during the First Shift in Vietnam has a new home in heaven....A gentle and kind man of God.  He'll be missed.



  1. Dean, This is one of the most beautiful tributes to a loved one I have ever read. I know you will miss him. Thank you for sharing this portrait of his life, and your love for him, with us. Sally Maggard

  2. Dean, I echo Sally's comments. Praying for you in this time of loss.

  3. My prayers are with you, Dean, following the death of your brother. I met Nevin and talked with him several times while he was serving in NC and I was in seminary at Duke and then serving my first appointment in WNC, and thoroughly enjoyed those conversations. While the two of you are different in some ways, there are also more than a few similarities. He was a faithful servant of the Lord who was able to connect with a wide variety of people in many different ways. Peace be with you! Jim Pyatt

  4. Hey Dean,

    I had the pleasure of meeting Nevin once on Christmas Eve a couple of years ago, and hear stories from Linda sometimes, but thank so much for honoring him by sharing these memories too! He sounded great, and although a little mischievous, still really fun!! We can celebrate that he's in the presence of the One who loves him so much!

    I look forward to meeting you and your wife next week!

    Regine Brady (your nephew, Josh's wife)

  5. Dean - thanks for sharing about your brother. What an interesting man and life! I could almost get the sense of him. My prayers are with you.

  6. A special presentation to honor my Uncle Nevin Snyder (my mom's brother)

  7. I'm sorry for your loss. It's clear from your writing that Nevin was a wonderful person. Thank you for sharing your memories of him.