Jim Snyder was part of some significant policy achievements in almost 40 years in the Cattaraugus County, N.Y. Legislature and beyond, including work in George H.W. Bush’s administration. But he may have been even better at spur-of-the-moment, chance meetings he had with his constituents.
“I don’t know how many thousand people he’s gotten jobs for over the years, or they’ve been in trouble, and he’s helped them out,” said his son, Joe. “He looked after folks, particularly working people who got up every day and went to work and sometimes got in some trouble. He was always making phone calls to help people out. He built up a lot of contacts over 60 years.”
Snyder, who served as NACo president from 1989-1990, died May 11 at 86 in his hometown of Olean in upstate New York. He retired from the county Legislature at the end of 2019, where Joe still serves. The pair represented Cattaraugus County together for eight years.
After his stint as NACo president, Snyder followed it up with a year as president of the New York State Association of Counties before serving two years as Bush’s director of intergovernmental affairs.
The elder Snyder was so driven to help people, Joe said, because of the opportunity that a Syracuse University basketball scholarship offered him.
“That was the big break in his life that got him on a great path,” Joe Snyder said. “He grew up very hard, his father died when he was six years old, and they were absolutely dirt poor. Being able to go to college was sort of the stepping-stone that set him up to do well in life.”
That motivated Snyder’s push to bring a branch campus of the Jamestown Community College to the county. On the interpersonal side, he maintained a collegial rapport with his colleagues at the Legislature, with a focus on remaining constructive and cordial.
“He was old school. He didn’t believe we’re there to be enemies,” Joe said. “You're allowed to have spirited debates, but don’t insult each other and do take the time to listen to one another. His attitude has always been the more opinions that were views of an issue you could collect, the better the outcome of the decision would be. Once the decision was made, you accept the results, your way or not.
“It’s pretty easy to live in a small town to put the blinders on and think ‘This is this is how life is.’ He was always pretty adamant that he traveled a lot.”
Soon after China opened in the 1970s, Snyder visited and brought a big bag full of I<3NY buttons and handed them out on street corners.
“There are photos of dozens of little kids in the street surrounding this six-foot-six man handing out buttons,” Joe Snyder said. “I bet those buttons are still in some jewelry boxes in those homes in China.”
While other politicians leave office to spend more time with their families, Snyder made family involvement part of his service, involving his four children, often taking them on trips to conferences and to visit other counties or participate in local political events.
“We would be out visiting polls on election night with him, getting the numbers, then when we got older, we had to go get our own numbers and report back to him,” said Shayne Certo, his daughter who also accompanied Snyder on work trips. “It was really cool to see your father walk into a conference hall with 5,000 people and see them listening to what he had to say. We were very lucky to be able to travel with him.”
Known far and wide as a playful jokester, Snyder could also be strict.
“When we were little kids and we got in trouble, I’m talking like or five years old, six years… we never got spanked, but we would have to watch the evening news and not say a word,” Certo said.
What kept Jim Snyder in county government so long was the opportunity to help people.
“What he loved about it was that he had the ability to find sources to help people,” she said. “Whether it’s getting grants to put in a kayak launch or bringing a community college to your community, there was always something he wanted to do.”
The State University of New York Board of Trustees awarded him an honorary Doctor of Laws degree in 2021 through the Cattaraugus campus he helped bring to town. Snyder was named County Leader of the Year for 1990 by American City and County Magazine and was adopted into the Seneca Nation of Indians as a member of the Hawk Clan. He served in active and reserve duty in the U.S. Army and after his basketball career at Syracuse, earned a master’s degree from St. Bonaventure University.
In addition, his professional career involved helping people in need, too. He was the regional vice president of AAA of Western and Central New York.Hero 1