Thanks to a phone call from UNLV, Dr. Barbara Atkinson’s retirement that began in the Florida Keys didn’t last long.
In 2012 she had essentially wrapped up a 37-year career, culminating as dean and executive chancellor at the University of Kansas School of Medicine. She agreed to stay on until December 2013 to provide a seamless transition.
“I wanted to talk to her because of what we learned in reference checks,” Snyder said recently. “Some people didn’t think those checks were quite as positive as they’d like, that she was really tough. But I saw that as something that was really needed in our political environment, where there were issues between the north and south part of the state. I felt she was just what we needed, someone who could grit her teeth and deal with the challenges. Someone who was demanding with her people, who could get things done in a relatively short amount of time. She had shown she could do that at other schools.”
Dr. Atkinson couldn’t refuse.
“It was a huge opportunity,” Atkinson told the Las Vegas Business Press in the wake of giving up her retirement. “There are medical schools starting up across the country but most of them aren’t part of a big university like UNLV or city like Las Vegas that desperately needs doctors and health care. The opportunity to build an academic health center and plan a curriculum that really is forward-thinking doesn’t happen very often.”
Once again Snyder was at the center of something positive in Las Vegas. The man who was the chair of UNLV’s successful $537 million Invent the Future capital campaign, who spearheaded the fundraising campaign for the Smith Center for the Performing Arts — Snyder and his wife Dee donated $1 million to each campaign — was leading the charge to transform health care in Southern Nevada. As Jack Sheehan wrote in the preface to Taking the Lead, a book he co-authored with Snyder, “How does one person acquire the skills and confidence to take on disciplines as diverse as banking, gaming, construction, and all levels of education from kindergarten through college?”
In 480 pages, complete with photographs of movers and shakers on the local, state, and national scene, the book provides insight into how Snyder became president of First Interstate Bank of Nevada, co-founded Bank of Nevada, directed efforts to develop what became the Fremont Street Experience, morphed into president of Boyd Gaming, helped gain funding for Clark County School District schools, served as dean of the UNLV Harrah College of Hospitality, served as the university’s executive dean for strategic development, and finally became president of the university. He also led planning efforts for a new football stadium — efforts that led to the new Las Vegas Raiders Stadium where UNLV will play its home football games beginning in 2020.
Snyder's humble beginnings and a desire to prove people wrong provided the drive to succeed.
Born in 1947, Snyder, whose twin brother is named Ron, spent the first five years of his life living on a farm without running water outside the small town of Northville, South Dakota. “There was an outdoor toilet and an outdoor bathtub,” Snyder wrote. “When you’d sit on the toilet, it was hot in the summer and freezing cold in the winter. Those first five years were...a healthy atmosphere that makes a boy appreciate the good things in life later on.”
One of four children, Snyder, at age 5, moved with his family to Rapid City, South Dakota, where his father transitioned from farmer to tire salesman. Seven years later, the family moved to Wyoming, where his father would start a tire company in Sheridan.
“Living in two of the least populous states in the country growing up, South Dakota and Wyoming, gave me an open attitude towards people that I think has served me well in my career. I became generally trusting of people.”
Snyder didn’t stand out academically in high school. “I did develop a strong work ethic in my teen years as I always worked at hard jobs in the summertime. Because my dad was in the tire business, I was always busting tires on big and small equipment after school and on the weekends during those years. My older brother was also in that business, and I remember one time I was taking a nap on the job and he just chewed my ass for that. It was the last time I ever did that. It was one of those teaching moments that stay with you.”
His high school counselor didn’t think Snyder was cut out for college. “Her comment resonated with me and would provide inspiration later on for me to prove her wrong.”
By the time he finished Casper (Wyoming) Community College, Snyder was on the dean’s list, where he remained while majoring in business administration at the University of Wyoming. Upon graduation, he interviewed with United California Bank, which sent representatives to campus, and accepted a job offer in Southern California in 1969. On his drive to California, he met a bartender at Circus Circus in Las Vegas who told him a good place to live was in Orange County. It turned out he met his future wife, Dee, there. After dating for 18 months, they married.
“I’m not a big believer in karma, but it’s interesting, and maybe somehow karmic, that a casual reference from a Las Vegas bartender that I talked with only once in my life directed me to Orange County and the place where I would meet my wonderful wife and the mother of our three children. We’ve now been married 47 years, and I often brag that we have one of the 10 best marriages in the world. I don’t know who the other nine are, but there can’t be many better than ours. I owe so much of my success to Dee and her wonderful support.”
Snyder, who told his future wife he’d be a bank president one day, moved up the ladder quickly because of an uncompromising work ethic, meticulous attention to detail, and a personality that made it seem he never met a stranger. After United California Bank became First Interstate Bank, Snyder, at age 40, was named president of First Interstate Bank Nevada in 1987.
In Las Vegas — he retired from First Interstate in 1991 — he quickly became immersed in the community. Almost immediately he became a member of UNLV’s Board of Trustees “because you can’t have a great community without a great university.” He also became closely involved with the Clark County School District (CCSD) “because I understood the importance of the K-12th grade education to an economy at its people.”
Community leaders sing his praises in the book.
“Thank goodness we hired Don Snyder to manage the Fremont Street Experience because we needed a business person to execute a difficult plan,” said then-Las Vegas Mayor Jan Jones Blackhurst, today an executive with Caesar Entertainment.
“Don was one of the first people to promote the idea of a Las Vegas Stadium,” said Raiders president Marc Badain. “The project wouldn’t have happened without him.”
“There would be no Smith Center without Don’s leadership,” said Myron Martin, president and CEO of the Smith Center, where Snyder remains chairman of the board of directors.
“Don is one of my all-time heroes,” said Joyce Haldeman, a former CCSD associate superintendent. “I will never forget a phone call I made to him during one of the school bond campaigns. Don just moved into action and turned theoretical support into reality.”
Both Snyder and his wife Dee were touched when the CCSD named the Don and Dee Snyder Elementary School in southwest Las Vegas after them.
“It’s a great honor,” Snyder said, noting that Dee often volunteers at the school.
While Snyder calls the Smith Center his greatest legacy, he says the new school of medicine is the biggest thing UNLV has done for itself and its community.
“What it will do through research and for health care in the community is immeasurable.”