Last week, Mercer Island lost a well-loved sports icon.
A state baseball Hall of Fame coach and a longtime Mercer Island High School athletic director, Gary Snyder died of cancer on Oct. 24 at the age of 80.
His pastor and chaplain, Greg Asimakoupoulos, described a stream of people who came to visit Snyder, a person he said had a great optimistic attitude toward life and an unabashed faith. Snyder spent years in his retirement meeting with inmates to pray and do bible study.
Snyder also known for his encouragement. He would leave voicemails for Asimakoupoulos routinely at home. They would often say “Greg, just calling to let you know I’m thinking about you, and I want you to know how much I love you,” he recalled.
Those close to Snyder said the community loved him just as much.
Snyder grew up in the Magnolia area of Seattle, where he attended Queen Anne High School and played basketball and baseball.
After graduation, he went to the University of Washington on a full baseball scholarship and made the UW Hall of Fame — along with the other members of the 1959 Husky team.
Snyder played in the San Francisco Giants’ minor-league system before he returned to the Seattle area for years of coaching youth.
He landed a job as a physical education teacher at Shorecrest High School in north Seattle in 1962. And by the time he reached his early 20s, he was head baseball coach.
“That’s where he was at his best, on the baseball field teaching and coaching kids,” said Matt Snyder, Gary Snyder’s son. “He was just a born educator and he loved kids.”
For 14 years he coached at the school, and led the team to a state championship in 1975.
In 1979, Gary Snyder was hired as associate principal for Mercer Island High School. Soon after, he was made athletic director and spent more than 15 years at the school. As AD, he developed a reputation for the way he managed the facilities. The basketball court was painted with school colors. The home players and visiting teams sat in maroon and white seating. The janitor would sweep the floor during time out — he had his own chair beneath the hoop with his name.
“Little things like that made him unique,” Matt Snyder said. “He valued details.”
In 1988, Gary Snyder became a charter inductee into the Washington State Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
But Snyder’s greatest achievement, his son said, was marrying Alene Tonette Snyder, who went by Tonette. The couple met during a class at UW. Snyder would often make bets with his buddies on how long it would take before Tonette would doze off in class, a common occurrence, their son said. This somehow transitioned into the two dating and eventual marriage and the birth of their three sons — Matt, Quin (current head coach for the Utah Jazz) and Nate. They were married for 57 years before Tonette died on July 1.
“She was unquestionably the crown jewel of the family,” Matt Snyder said.
Of all his memories with his father, Matt Snyder recalled a season of pony league baseball spent alongside his brother and dad. He grew up watching his dad coach and idolizing the players on his teams.
By the time he was old enough to play under his dad, his father was no longer coaching. But, he agreed to coach Matt and his older brother Quin, who were in sixth and eighth grades at the time. Typically, sixth and eighth graders weren’t allowed on the same team. But after Gary Snyder spoke with the person in charge, an exception was made.
“‘And when I looked him right in the eye, he changed the rule,’” Matt Snyder recalled his dad saying. “It’s a small thing, but when I think of my dad and the belief that he had in us as kids, the recognition that this was an opportunity for his boys to play together and for him to coach us and our friends… he understood it was going to be a special year.”
And it was. The team went undefeated (20-0) and won the league championship.
It was such a special thing that for his bachelor party Matt Snyder didn’t go to Las Vegas or out on the town. Instead, he asked his dad to put on his uniform and meet him and his friends at Island Crest Park. There at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning, Gary Snyder ran practice for Matt’s buddies, brothers and the guys who wanted to be on the team but never were.
“He knew the game better than anybody, but it was never about the game,” Matt Snyder said. “It was about learning how to be a good person and growing up to be a good man.”