Saturday, July 30, 2011
A Good Man Gone Too Soon
(This is a class notes column I wrote for the Yale Alumni Magazine on behalf of the Class of 1967, which I serve as corresponding secretary.)
If anyone ever doubted that our class listserv has become a real community, that question was settled once and for all on Jan. 25 when Philip Rosenthal posted this message:
"I bear the sad news of the passing of our dear classmate, Michael Snarskis. I just received an email from Lloyd Timberlake, who found out from someone who knew Michael. May Michael's memory be a blessing. He brought a unique presence to the listserv."
This news triggered a spasm of grief from our classmates, many of whom had never met Mike personally. But everyone felt like they knew him from his listserv postings about his adventures as an archaeologist in Costa Rica and his fight to prevent priceless artifacts from being looted and smuggled out of the country.
"I am still in shock," said Joseph Feit. "My wife and I spent some memorable time with Michael in Costa Rica. He was a fine man, a kind man, a mentsch."
"Mike introduced me to my wife, Nancy, who had gone to high school with him," said Ted Funk, who roomed with him for three years in Calhoun. "Nancy and I miss him and remember him as a kind person, a romantic, who profoundly loved and loved what he did."
"I didn't see things Mike's way in religion," said Rev. Bob Riedel. "But something in Mike moved me, and I liked him. I loved that he shared some of his unpublished discoveries with us. I responded to what seemed like a generous heart. I miss him already."
On Dec. 13 Mike made his final post on the listserv: "Richard Holbrooke dies at 69. My father died at 58. What to think, how much time does it give us? Does it matter? I am getting there fast."
His body was found in bed, with one hand on the book he was reading and the other on his heart. He was cremated, and his ashes were scattered on the dirt where, as the Costa Rican newspaper Tico Times put it, "he discovered civilizations that had risen and returned to the soil thousands of years ago."
Mike first traveled to Costa Rica shortly after graduation as a member of the Peace Corps and innocently started collecting trinkets and heirlooms that he found. Only later did he realize that what he was doing was - by archaeology standards - more on a par with looting. (He immediately returned the artifacts, of course.)
"But he more than made up for his indiscretion," said the Tico Times. "For four decades, Snarskis' contributions were some of the most significant archaeological discoveries in Costa Rica's history."
Mike also worked with the U.S. State Department to fight the illicit trafficking in priceless cultural objects by publishing a "Red List" that describes several categories of objects that are particularly vulnerable to looting. This list has been invaluable to law enforcement in spotting these objects.
"We should celebrate how great a contribution he made to his profession and how it demonstrates the value of the broad liberal education Yale sought to provide us," said Cliff Allo. "For myself, however, I remember best his candor and descriptions of life in Costa Rica and very much appreciated having a 'foreign correspondent' amongst us."
"I didn't know Mike at Yale," said Tony Barclay. "But we became good friends in graduate school at Columbia. We lost touch until our 40th reunion, and I know that being able to attend meant a great deal to him."
Rick Luis and Jay Hines didn't know Mike at Yale, either. "I didn't meet him until our 40th reunion, and all too briefly then," said Rick. "But he was a real presence before and after that on the listserv. The timely themes, obvious passion and touching humanity of his postings made them compulsory reading for a lurker like me. He will be missed."
Jay added, "Michael was one of the many classmates I met for the first time at our last reunion. We had much in common - parents from Iowa, time spent in foreign countries, careers somewhat between government and academia - and we became instant friends. I will miss him greatly."
Chris Kule wrote, "Mike was a 'good ol' soul' (chanted loudly). He remembered me from his days as a waiter at the football training table. Says everything about his generosity of spirit. We are greatly diminished by his passing."
"We have lost a good friend and classmate," said Mike Orlansky. " I got to know Michael through the Yale Band (he was a fine trumpet player in both the football and concert bands), and in small Spanish literature classes. He was a bright, talented, and refreshingly direct and unpretentious person. His work was done not for personal gain or recognition, but rather in the very best spirit of Americans building partnerships and friendships in cooperation with people of other nations.
"At a time in his life when he was experiencing personal, financial and health difficulties, as any of us someday might, it clearly meant a great deal to Michael to know that he was remembered and valued by his classmates, regardless of whether you were an old friend from campus days or a new friend via the list, and to have this connection with Yale.
"Michael will be greatly missed and well remembered by many. Descanse en paz, mi amigo."
Don Pierce, Andy Delbaum, Bill Mace, Bert Rodriguez and Penn Glazier also shared their memories.
Since there was no funeral service, Peter Lee came up with an idea for memorializing Mike that I think would have pleased him greatly: creating a Wikipedia page for him.
And that's exactly what we did. Ed Cherlin took the lead, aided by Alan Burdick, John Roche, Peter Petkas, Jerry de Jaeger, Randy Alfred, Don Pierce, Jay Hines and Tom Devine. You can read the article by going to Wikipedia and typing in Mike's name.
Guys, I miss him, too. And I'm very proud to be in your company.