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WORLD WAR II HERO AND BAND DIRECTOR: Now 92, La Verne’s Robin Snyder Still Hitting All the High Notes

Robin wakes each morning tuned to his favorite radio channel, KUSC.

What does recent history tell us? Damien’s football field was named after its great coach Dick Larson. Similarly, the Spartan’s ball yard was named after longtime athletic director Tom Carroll. You can find both stories on LaVerneOnline.

Meanwhile, Bonita’s football field has long donned the name of Glenn Davis, the high school’s multi-sport star who went on to win the Heisman Trophy in 1946.

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Given such precedents, isn’t it time to begin a campaign to rename the Bonita Center for the Arts for 92-year-old young Robin Snyder, who directed the Bonita Unified School District’s music programs from 1966 to 1985?

Indeed, the 700-seat performing arts center, which opened its doors in the fall of 2014 and entertains the community with an array of music, dance and theatrical programs, stands today as a shrine to the pioneering talent and vision of Snyder who left his Midwest home in Jefferson, Ia., in 1966 to helm the district’s then-meager musical program.

About five years after his arrival here, he put the Bonita Unified School District on the musical map, with the district winning competition after competition.

“We would win them all, from San Diego to Monterey,” said Snyder, who still lives in the La Verne home on Hale Ave. that he purchased in 1966 for $29,000. “I think we won 10 in a row. The kids just worked their fannies off. They were ripe and ready to learn.”

Head West Young Man

And they had just the right musical prodigy to teach them.

Snyder had been lured west by another musical genius, Jack Mercer, who was the City of Ontario’s music man for six decades, including director of the Ontario/Chaffey Community Show Band. But early in Mercer’s career, the musical maestro had taught at Creston High School in Iowa, a trumpet’s blast from nearby Lennox High School, where Snyder held the conductor’s baton.

“We were still kids at the time,” Snyder said.

Although Mercer would bolt for California in the late 1950s and begin his long association with Ontario, he never forget his friend in Iowa.

In 1966, Mercer called his old band buddy, who had completed his 16th year as musical director for Jefferson High School in Green County, Ia. At the pinnacle of his profession, Snyder, whose band and jazz ensembles had won every competition in sight, was ready to hear Mercer’s pitch. Naturally, it included lots of references to California’s abundant sunshine, citrus trees and higher teaching salaries.

“Jack said Southern California was the greatest place on earth and that the people were fine,” Snyder said, recalling their phone call from a half-century ago. “When it’s 10 degrees below in Iowa, I didn’t have to hear anymore.”

Hurray for Hollywood

California, it turns out, wasn’t completely a foreign land for Snyder. In the mid-1930s, when he was 11 and his brother Donald was 10, they came to Hollywood as the singing and dancing “Snyder Twins” to audition for Paramount Pictures and legendary Leroy Prinz, the choreographer behind such films as “Show Boat,” (1936), “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (1942), “Rhapsody in Blue” (1945), and “South Pacific” (1958).

They had been quite the Midwest sensations.

“We did a lot of hoofin’ in those days,” Snyder said. They also, of course, played instruments, Robin starting with the clarinet and Don with the trombone.

For Robin, the tuba or cello had been out of the question. “I was the littlest guy in my class,” he said. “Every year, I played Tiny Tim in ‘The Christmas Carol.’”

The boys’ mother was the unwavering force behind their developing musical talents.

“My mother wanted us to be musical,” Snyder said. “In the Midwest, if you wanted a better place in life, you became musical. It was your escape I guess.”

The duo had actually begun performing in their home state of Missouri when Robin was five years old and Don was four. They had regular bits in vaudeville acts and minstrel shows until a new form of entertainment — talking-pictures — sidelined their acts.

As for the California trip, it was a success, but after receiving a telegram inviting the Snyder twins to a second audition, their dad, a successful businessman who reputedly was the richest man in Gallatin, Mo., would have none of it.

“My dad wouldn’t let us go back because he was starting this new venture,” Snyder said. ”He was taking on a new contract.”

Also, the dancing twins hadn’t been in Hollywood long enough to be fully smitten by its charms.

“It was just as well,” Snyder said. “We were looking forward to high school. I played all sports, though not very well.

“I had a very healthy childhood.”

Tested War Veteran

That health would be tested during World War II. In 1941, Snyder enlisted, serving in Patton’s Third Army while rising to the rank of corporal. He served at the Battle of the Bulge, the last major German offensive campaign (winter of 1944-45) of World War II.

“I learned a lot about myself and the world,” Snyder said. “I found that I was capable of doing anything I had to do.”

He won his unit’s good conduct metal.

“I was a good soldier, I could dig fox holes faster than anyone,” he said, in his playful, self-deprecating manner.

After the war, he joined the Army reserves and resumed his education at Northwestern Missouri. One of his teachers told him that he could make a living teaching music. He also got a visit from his brother Don who told his big brother he should pursue a career in music. Don’s advice meant a great deal. In the war, Don had been a member of the Army Ground Forces Band in Washington D.C.

With Don and Robin back in town, the Snyder Twins were a team again, though not as a dancing duo, but rather as accomplished musicians who played at fraternity and sorority parties and other gigs they picked up. “We were making good money,” Snyder said.

It would be needed. Robin married his sweetheart Glennie, a fellow student, in 1946. In 1949, he graduated, after which he took his first teaching job in Lennox, Ia., north of the Missouri border. Then he directed the music program at Jefferson High in Green County, Iowa, for the next 16 years.

So 20 years later when Snyder arrived at Bonita, it was no wonder that he was a polished performer and a proven instructor. Although he would no longer have to suffer through Iowa’s freezing temperatures in winter and the Hawkeye state’s sweltering summers made worse by the bugs and suffocating humidity, he was giving up his perennial award-winning bands and jazz ensembles that had played on the national stage.

“We were at least 10 years ahead of what they were doing in California,” Snyder said. “We just did things they couldn’t even think of.”

Fired Up

But his new Bonita Unified School District band members, who were all bussed from their individual schools across the district to Bonita, were ready for Snyder’s challenge. “We had the fire,” Snyder said. “Where some of these high schools might get one all-state player, we would get 10.”

District students responded to Snyder’s easy, fun-loving but engaging manner. He helped them pick up jazz’s improvisational rhythms and complex chord changes. “I am a loose person with high standards,” Snyder said.

He brought out the pinnacle performance in each of his students, including Gordon Goodwin, who went on to become a three-time Emmy winner.

Now 92, Snyder’s tempo might have slowed a bit, but you would hardly know it by his vice-like hand shake and clear, twinkling eyes.

“I am in damn good shape, especially when you consider I’m standing here while so many others have gone to their grave,” Snyder said.

Then his tone turns slightly more serious. Indeed, he wonders why the Good Lord has kept him around so long.

Maybe the answer is revealing itself.

The Lord is having him stick around so that he can see his name bless the new Bonita Center for the Arts, a concert hall that he and a generation of students helped build,  one sweet and wonderful note at a time.