Lee Snyder, Ph.D.
East Falls Historical Society Oral History Interview
Interviewee: Lee L. Snyder, Ph.D. (LS)
Interviewer: Kenneth A. Hinde (KH)
Date of Interview: February 2010
KH: When and where were you born?
LS: I was born in a little town in northeast PA called Drums, named after a family named Drum that lived in that area and I was born in 1921.
KH: What about your parents, what were their backgrounds, as far as nationality?
LS: Well, they were both natural born citizens. My father came from a family of Welsh miners. His father was named John Owens which is kind of curious since my name is not Owens but that’s a long other story and he was married to a Jenny Singleton which is probably English but my grandfather Owens was a miner and all of his sons except one who had a crippled foot were miners at one time or the other. It was a very large family of ultimately I guess 10 – 8 boys and 2 girls – curiously the second girl, my Aunt Ethel, is a year younger than I am!
KH: So you still have your Aunt Ethel?
LS: Yes and my mother’s family, I wish I knew more about. Her father’s name was John Wilson Mace which I think is probably an English name and her mother, on the other hand, was of German origin. She herself was born here but her parents I think came from Germany. Their name was Wirsing which appears to have been shortened from Wirsinger. And my parents probably met in the equivalent of junior high school. I never inquired about this but I think that was the case. They both had what was then sort of the common public education in that area. They went through 8th grade. My father subsequently had some training – I guess 2 years – in a business school and was proficient as a bookkeeper and so on and later used those skills in various ways, preparing taxes for people and that sort of thing. My mother would have liked to have gone to college but her family simply couldn’t afford it. If she had, she probably would have been a teacher and those skills, sort of leading and directing groups, came up in volunteer activities later on.
KH: Do you have any siblings?
LS: I have a sister who survives. She’s 2 years younger than I, almost exactly 2 years. I had two other sisters who died in infancy though younger than my sister Betty. Apparently, they died because of the incompatibility of blood factors. At the time they didn’t know how to deal with it but apparently, that’s now dealt with transfusions or injections or something. Apparently, it’s a fairly common thing and after the first but more commonly after the second pregnancy, women with this factor have to have that dealt with or their children won’t survive. They are what I think they call ‘blue babies.’ And both of these girls, I think, died within a matter of days after birth.
KH: Does your sister, Betty, still live up in northeastern PA?
LS: Yes, she lives in a little town outside of Hazelton. She was a registered nurse. She trained here in Philadelphia at the nursing school at the Women’s Medical College when that still existed here in East Falls. And for a time she and her husband who she knew in junior high school, after they married they lived for a time in Germantown for I guess about 2 or 3 years while she worked as a nurse and he was working for the Western Electric Company, generally installing central office telephone equipment, the type of things that have now been replaced by electronic circuits and so on.
KH: I’m also interested in knowing, when you were a youngster in school – elementary, secondary school – what were your academic strengths and what were your academic weaknesses?
LS: It’s interesting, I generally did pretty well in most subjects. I especially liked in the early grades things like geography. I was pretty good at math right from the beginning and all through high school I was pretty good in math. It’s always been a little disappointing to me that I didn’t have any math in college. I often wish I had taken calculus because I think it would have been useful because it’s related to statistics and so on which I never really learned.
KH: Well, along those lines, when you were growing up did you think like most kids do: I want to be such and such when I grow up?
LS: Well, things that interested me were, I can remember particularly when I was about in 7th or 8th grade, I got interested in bridges. I remember in my 7th grade classroom they had a set of ‘The Book of Knowledge’ which is kind of an old set of encyclopedic reference work. I got to reading that once during a recess or something and I was reading about the building of the first cantilevered bridges in Scotland.
KH: One of those iron bridges?
LS: Yes, the ones they built out from both sides. And that fascinated me and so I thought, well, I would like to build bridges. And if had got a scholarship to an engineering school instead of to a liberal arts college, I might have very well been an engineer because I was interested in that sort of thing and I was to that point pretty good at math and physics and that sort of thing. I was also interested in architecture which is not unrelated to engineering. I used to make model houses and so on, a sort of a modern kind of house. Instead of stairs, my house had a ramp from the first to the second floor and one of the things I also got interested in during that same time was I read at that time about the raising of the ‘USS something or other’ which was a submarine which had sunk but was eventually raised and brought up to the surface and the whole thing was very interesting because it meant getting under the submarine on the sea bed with putting cables underneath it and then attaching those cables to tanks which they filled with air and eventually the whole thing was raised up and I was fascinated by that. That sort of technical thing kind of interested me.
KH: That’s interesting to me because I know about your career in English, English literature. When you went to college – well, first of all – where did you go to college and did you major in English?
LS: Well no, I went to Muhlenberg College in Allentown which was a different college then than it is now.
KH: So, you ‘came south’ at that point (from northeastern PA)?
LS: Yes, as a matter of fact I had scholarships to two liberal arts colleges- Muhlenberg was one, Franklin & Marshall was the other. And I’ve often speculated, well, suppose I’d gone to Franklin & Marshall instead of Muhlenberg? I would have known a whole different set of people in a different place. At that time, F & M was probably the more prestigious college and probably maybe a little better even in terms of its faculty. But Muhlenberg has come to be a much stronger college now than it was then. Until sometime about in the late 50s, I think it became co-ed. Until then it was a men’s college which it was when I was there and the total enrollment was about 500. Now it’s co-ed, has been for 60 years and is at least three times as big as it was then.
KH: That’s where you did your undergraduate work?
LS: Yes, and I was not majoring in English, I was majoring in Classics – Greek and Latin –and I was planning to go on to graduate work in Classics. As a matter of fact, I had received a fellowship to study Classics at the University of Chicago but then World War II came and I was drafted. And after the War, by then I had changed my goal but since I had already once been admitted to the University of Chicago, they said well, we have already admitted you once and your admission is still good. And that was fortunate for me because at the time there were so many veterans trying to get back into colleges and universities. But since they’d taken me once, they took me back.
KH: So, that’s where you got your graduate degree after the War?
KH: A Master’s Degree in English?
LS: Yes, a Master’s Degree in English. By that time I had switched my interest. When I was in college, I was studying Greek and Latin. I had also had by then five years of German. I had had two years of German in high school, three years of German in college. I had had two years of French and two years of Italian and by then I guess I had probably eight years of Latin and four years of Greek. Well, in my senior year I took an elective course in the English department called ‘A History of the English Language.’ Well, I was fascinated there because as I got to studying the English vocabulary, I realized that so much of it comes from so many different languages and I thought, boy, this is what really turns me on.
So, I really got interested in that and at the University of Chicago they didn’t really have many people who were who in English philology. Philology is sort of a name for the study of language. It’s not equivalent to linguistics and it’s an older term. It’s really a 19th century/early 20th century term focusing on the study of language for the sake of interpreting and understanding the literature in a language. So, they really didn’t have many people at Chicago in that area. They did have one man who was an expert in Middle English but he was retiring. I essentially filled in some of the many gaps in my English literature background and then I came back east. I first applied to Johns Hopkins because they had a strong language department and they would have accepted me but not that year. I would have had to wait a year and I didn’t want to do that. I applied to Yale also and they had already filled their class for the coming year. And I was somewhat at loose ends until I was talking to a former professor at Muhlenberg whom I had known as an undergraduate and he said, well, I know some people at Penn. I’ll talk to them and see if they have any openings and, as a matter of fact, I was accepted eventually at Penn.
KH: So, that’s what brought you to Philadelphia?
LS: That’s what brought me to Philadelphia.
KH: Actually, every question I had you have answered already!
LS: Yes, I came here in the fall of 1947.
KH: So, you’ve been in Philadelphia since 1947?
LS: Yes, 1947.
KH: And you and Helen were married in 1956?
LS: Yes, 1956. Helen came here in 1950. Her move was job-related. She had been working in a family counseling agency in Cleveland and she came to Philadelphia to Family Services of Philadelphia which was then a major agency in the field, a pioneer in many respects.
KH: And I know that when you came to Philadelphia, you had lived in Center City.
LS: Well, my first year in Philadelphia I lived in a rented room at 47th & Spruce. And then, one of my graduate school classmates had got a job at Bucknell and was leaving Philadelphia so I took over his apartment which was at 42nd between Locust and Walnut near what was then the Episcopal Seminary. What is that nowadays?
KH: You know, I’m not sure. Is that the…, you said 46th?
KH: Would it be around 42nd between Walnut or Spruce area?
LS: Yes. Walnut and Locust.
KH: OK – that I’m not sure of. But then when you and Helen married, I know you lived in Mt. Airy?
LS: Well, yes.
KH: Or was it Germantown?
LS: After a couple of years in West Philadelphia, I moved downtown. I first had an apartment at 22nd & Walnut and then I had an apartment on 21st Street.
KH: Above the Friday Saturday Sunday restaurant?
LS: Yes, that was a lovely apartment. And while I was living there I met Helen and after we married, we lived for two years in an apartment across the street, 267 South 21st. Then we moved to Mt. Airy.
KH: Right. Obviously, and my next question is, what year did you begin working at the Philadelphia Textile Institute which eventually brought you to East Falls?
LS: 1957. And as a matter of fact, we were still living downtown at that time and I used to drive out to what was then the Philadelphia Textile Institute.
KH: Right. So, as you said, you moved here in 1965.
LS: Yes, but we had lived, I think, for seven years, in Mt. Airy. I think we lived downtown two years. We looked all over the place, including some of the suburbs for a place to rent essentially but eventually because of someone that Helen worked with in the same agency, had a neighbor who was vacating a house in Mt. Airy, we learned of this house in Mt. Airy, just off of Lincoln Drive on West Durham and we lived there for seven years.
KH: Before moving here?
LS: Before moving here, yes.
KH: Now I was also interested to know when you were hired by what was then the Philadelphia Textile Institute, what was your first position – were you an instructor or professor?
LS: I was an instructor in English.
KH: So you started in the English department.
LS: Yes. Well, there wasn’t really an English department. That’s one of the curious things. It was kind of a mish-mash. Of course, then the emphasis was still very much on textiles instruction and mostly on textile production. Design had not yet come to be as strong as it would later was. And there was nothing except textiles or chemistry as related to textiles. It was not until about 1959 or 1960 that they first introduced a textile-related business curriculum called ‘textile management and marketing.’ And then a few years after that came straight business administration and then later on everything else and textiles is much less prominent than the overall curriculum as it was then.
KH: So you were there for about what, 30 years?
LS: Yes, about 34 years – 1957 to 1991
KH: So, obviously, you kind of advanced through the ranks?
LS: Well, yes, after a few years I recognized that in some ways I was acting as though I were head of a department but there wasn’t any English department. I was hiring people and recommending people for hiring and so on. So I talked to the president and said well maybe it would be a good idea if I had the title as chairman of the department and so I was sort of chairman of the English department. And then, about that same time the Institute had hired a professor from the University of Pennsylvania to sort of do an overall evaluation of the College’s situation and among the things that he recommended was that the faculty be organized into five departments: department of textiles, department of business, department of mathematics and science, department of humanities, and department of social sciences. One of the problems with that was that all of the people teaching in the social sciences were part-timers, so it didn’t seem very logical to have a department with only part-timers. So, the recommendation was to attach it to one of the other departments, either humanities or business. And then they first said, well, let’s attach it to humanities where I was suggested as the appropriate chairman because I had already been acting as chairman with English and history, hiring people and so on. I said, “Oh, my God, I don’t know anything about psychology or sociology.” Well, they said then we’ll attach it to the school of business and I knew the chairman of the school of business and thought well, I think I know at least as much about those things as he does. So, I said OK, we’ll take it and I think it was an appropriate move because it makes more sense to join all of those with, what shall we say, general education courses into a single department.
KH: So, at that point you were chairman of…?
LS: I was chairman of the Department of Humanities & Social Sciences. In those days, chairmanship was essentially a matter of presidential appointment. I was chairman and had been for I guess almost 15 years when the people in my department began to say, well, we faculty ought to have some say into who is the chairman and we ought to have an elected chairmanship. Well, since that was a pretty strong impulse on their part, I sort of went along with that and so I ran as a candidate for chairman and was elected and served for one year. Subsequently, other people were elected chair. Nowadays, that department is the School of Liberal Arts. That’s gone through several name changes. The first was called the School of General Studies. That name was rejected because like the School of Liberal Arts at Penn, it deals with non-credit courses. Then they had still another name – I’ve forgotten it – but know it’s the School of Liberal Arts. Now, the deanship of that school is a matter of presidential appointment and is not subject to election of specific term.
KH: So, the Department of Humanities & Social Sciences became the School of Liberal Arts.
KH: So, there never really was a title of ‘Department of English?’
LS: No, it was always the Department of Humanities & Social Sciences.
KH: What you taught, you taught English literature?
LS: Well, I taught freshman composition, introductory literature and occasional elective courses, some of them might be literary related. For example, twice I had a course in American Autobiography and that was something I enjoyed. And we dealt with writers such as Benjamin Franklin, Frederic Douglass, Mary McCarthy. Who is the man who wrote ‘Soul on Ice?’
KH: Oh, Eldridge Cleaver.
LS: And occasionally I had others, I taught speech occasionally and some other elective courses but mainly composition and the required literature course.
KH: I would imagine as is the case with most in jobs such as yours, that you probably got more enjoyment teaching than you did the administrative part?
LS: Well, I tell you, when I was chairman, I got a good deal of satisfaction out of working with other chairs, deans and so on in curriculum development and I was also interested all along in faculty governance. I helped organize the first chapter of the American Association of University Professors on campus. I had a role that turned out to be reasonably significant in moving the College in the direction of using TIAA-CREF as the pension fund. Before that, the College was self-insured and had its own pension plan. And, of course, if you lived long enough and worked there all your life, the benefits were pretty good but there was no vesting in it. If you went somewhere else, you had no pension from the College. If you died before you retired, your survivors had nothing. So, it was a real mess and the main problem was that it was underfunded. And I was asked to serve on a committee on the whole pension matter and I raised the question have you ever considered TIAA-CREF? Well, many people had never even heard of it, so I wrote to the TIAA-CREF office in New York and I called and I had people come down to talk to our committee and so on, and eventually we moved in that direction.
KH: Now, do you today, you’ve been retired since 1991, are you still involved in some way?
LS: Well, I try to check the University e-mail periodically. Currently, I’m having trouble with that and I keep calling the help desk and pointing out the problem. I get to the appropriate website and click on what I should click on and nothing happens. I’m going to have to call them again. They initially told me well, you didn’t update your password. I don’t know what the problem is. I used to go more often to visit colleagues on campus but now my visiting is pretty much limited to going to the first meeting of the faculty of the School of Liberal Arts every year.
KH: Where was your office on the campus?
LS: Well, the whole matter of my office was a long-standing problem. When I first went there, I shared an office with a man who taught jacquard weaving and it was a little office about a quarter of the size of this room. There was room for two desks in there and some bookcases and he was an interesting guy. He was very expert in his field but he had sort of a basic personality problem. He was very suspicious apparently of many people and apparently it was because he frequently thought people were trying to get the better of him. And this was not only with colleagues but students and on occasion, he would with students, particularly, lose his temper and would rant and carry on. I remember this happened once when I was in the office and he was in the classroom which was just beyond the wall. I could hear what was going on. There was this furor over there and he was carrying on. He left the classroom and came back and sat down at his desk and the man was pale and trembling. I think he scared himself with his temper.
KH: How long did you have to share this office with him?
LS: I shared for several years then after the Department of Humanities & Social Sciences was organized, they put all 14 of us faculty members in that department in a room which was about twice the size of this room. We just had desks in there. Not separate rooms, not even cubicles. After a couple of years, they gave us these 60 inch high partitions to give us a little separation but, of course, it was not very good – you couldn’t have a conference really, so we kept agitating for decent offices. And the administration said, well there’s just no room, we don’t have any room for offices for you. I even explored whether it would have been technically possible to build some offices on the top of Hayward Hall. Just a light structure on top of that very heavy structure. Well, of course, that never came to be. Eventually, we got word that since the director of buildings and grounds who was then living on the second floor of the White House which was then the administration building was moving out and that there would be some rooms available on the second floor of the administration building. We could have them if we all agreed not to come in through the main lobby but to enter by way of the fire escape!
KH: A sort of ‘tradesmen’s’ entrance?
LS: Yes! Of course, everybody objected to that and eventually they relented. For several years we had offices on the second floor of the administration building. They were mostly shared offices. I, as chairman, had my own office. It was a fairly nice, generous space in what had been part of the living room of the president when he lived on the second floor of the administration building. And while I was in that office, you see, when we had all been in this big room we had lots of togetherness. But when we moved to these rooms on the second floor of the administration building, we began to lose touch with one another. So, I started the practice of every Friday afternoon of having wine and cheese hour in my office. And that continued for many years. It was a voluntary thing and gradually involved faculty members from other departments and also, the dean and the president would sometimes come and join in. It’s something that kind of became a social function. That partially solved the problem of offices. After the College bought the Raven Hill Academy, our department moved to the Raven Hill Mansion and had offices there.
KH: So, I imagine that you walked to the office?
LS: Well, more often I drove because I had books and things to carry.
KH: Well, I guess the last part of the questions – I wanted to focus a little bit on East Falls – and I know you’re not born and raised in East Falls but you’ve lived here close to 50 years now. So, I thought I’d ask you about your thoughts on East Falls. What changes have you seen during the 45 years you lived here and any special people, colorful characters that you’ve come to know in East Falls?
LS: You see, I knew East Falls since 1957 since I came here then and actually before we moved here, we had looked at houses in East Falls and in Germantown. There were a couple of interesting houses on Vaux Street that we liked. We actually looked at a house on Warden Drive that we did not buy. That was an interesting one. It was, I think 3425 Warden but actually it’s the house next to Rendell’s. And at the time it belonged to Henri Marceau who was director of the Museum of Art and he was still living in the house. All his furniture and possessions were there and the walls contained pictures and autographed paintings done by artist friends of his. So, that was kind of an interesting experience to visit that house. Mr. Marceau was not there at the time but the realtor showed us around. And the realtor at that time was a resident of Warden Drive, a man named Harry Robinhold. There was a firm called Pritchard & Robinhold who had much of the real estate in East Falls and Germantown for years and years. And Robinhold showed us a whole bunch of houses, including one interesting one on a little street in Germantown. I always remember it because it was a big house which had two living rooms on the first floor. Off the center hall, there were two enormous living rooms. And he eventually sold us this house. There was a problem in the sale in that the house was a part of an estate and somehow the lawyer working for the estate had to go to Orphan’s Court to get something changed so that they could lower the price to what we were able to offer. But anyhow, it had been vacant for at least a couple of years, I think, before we bought it.
KH: Now, have you seen any major changes in East Falls in the past 45 years?
KH: Was the movie theater still there?
LS: Yes, the movie theater, I think it was called the Alden, was on Midvale Avenue and there were a couple more gasoline/service stations on Midvale than there are now. Well, Gulf is not a gas station but that was a service station and down from it was an ARCO station and down, just before you get to the railroad bridge, where there’s a repair shop there was another gasoline station. The one at Midvale and Warden Drive was a Texaco, I don’t remember now, Texaco, ARCO, I think Esso. The Alden, I think, was the theater and what else was on there I don’t know.
There must have stores, I think. I’m reminded that – what was the East Falls post office – was in a building now belonging to St. Bridget Church. That little house just below the parking lot. It was a dinky little place – you had to sort of squeeze your way in almost. I can’t remember much more about Midvale Avenue. Oh, this was not after I moved here but this goes back to when I first came to Philadelphia years earlier, probably in my teens I had occasion to come to Philadelphia for some reason and I remember that near the intersection of Ridge and Midvale was one of these inns going back to the 19th century, you know where the people came out from town to have their catfish and waffles. It was one of these inns that reminded me of the houses in New Orleans, you know, with the kind of balcony with a lot of iron fret work and all of that sort of thing. Wendy Moody had an article in ‘The Fallser’ some issues back about those. The thing that I notice in recent years is that I have more of a sense of this block feeling more like a special community.
KH: Warden Drive, you mean?
LS: Yes, Warden Drive. You know, there’s a block party almost every year. And, in the last, I would say, two years or so, many more young families have moved in, so there’s lots more children here than there were for many years.
KH: So, it’s still a unique neighborhood as far as…?
LS: Yes, I think so. Of course, there have always been certain groups which have thought of themselves as East Falls groups. Even from the time when we first moved here, they called it the Warden Drive Book Club, sort of a woman’s book club that met monthly at members’ houses to discuss books they had read. They shared books. Books would be passed from one member to another. I remember Helen would take the books she got – I don’t know who brought her the books – but Helen’s job was to deliver the book to Joan Specter who was still living on Warden Drive.
KH: It wasn’t real long ago that they moved from there, maybe just in the last 10 years or so?
KH: Well, that was the last question I had. Do you have anything else you want to add? You’ve actually led me through the questions!
LS: There are certain other groups, now, for over a year I was asked to join a group that I think calls themselves ‘The Shakespeareans’ and they meet four times a year to originally, I think, read a Shakespeare play. What’s happened, more recently, is that we tend to look at some DVD or a film version of a Shakespeare play and then discuss it. We’re supposed to this Saturday see Romeo & Juliet. Now, actually there’s been a couple of diversions from that to instead of a Shakespeare play, we’re going to discuss Ibsen’s ‘The Doll House’ and that’s another group which is pretty much an East Falls group. Although at least one couple lives in Germantown.
There is, has been formed a kind of exploratory group to organize what they want to call the ‘East Falls Village’ which is a group endeavoring to work together to enable people to live in their own homes and it’s sort of modeled after one famous group in Boston’s Beacon Hill where people got together to decide how they could help one another doing errands, taking people to the doctor’s and that sort of thing and enable them to continue to live in their community and be sort of self-sustained. And Charlie Day, from down the street, is sort of the head of that group.
KH: Lee, thank you very much for participating in this East Falls oral history project!