Undergraduate Research with Fred Snavely '49 by Claude Yoder '62
It was in my second year as an undergraduate at F&M when walking down the steps of Fackenthal Labs I heard, “Yoder, are you interested in doing research this summer?” I recognized the voice as my Inorganic and Qual Analysis professor, Dr. Fred Snavely, and thought “Is he really talking to me?” I was not only flattered to be asked but exuberant about the possibility of “doing research”, whatever that was. Of course, I said yes and subsequently did two years of summer research and an independent study with him. That was the beginning of my love affair with research in Chemistry.
Snavely had done work on the coordination of metal ions with azo compounds (many dyes are azo compounds) in his Doctoral work at Penn State with Conrad Fernelius in the 1940s after he had served in the Air Force as a radio operator on a B-17. He continued that theme at F&M and, along with Fred Suydam, was instrumental in obtaining a series of NSF-URP grants which provided student summer stipends. My project was a study of the coordination of transition metal cations to a particular azo pyrazolone containing a dimethylamino group that would also bind to the cation. The synthesis was difficult and took me most of two summers. I worked in a small lab in the basement of Fackenthal with two other students. Snavely was a master of psychology. He was aware of each student’s motivational button. With me it was often playing me off against another student in the lab with whom I “competed” for the highest grades in many of our classes. “Yoder, how is that reaction going? Sinke just told me that he made the nitroso derivative.” Well, I wasn’t about to let Sinke outdo me! Really, though, the main driving force behind the research was just a love of working with chemicals and finding out how to make a new compound, or how they would bind to the cations.
In those days the Chem majors were a very tightly knit group. We organized—with plenty of help from the faculty—two or three poker parties a year plus at least one picnic. The poker parties were off-campus and, in addition to playing poker, the seniors got to imitate the faculty, sing songs, etc. One of my favorite parts of almost every party was hearing Snavely tell his war stories, which were indeed noteworthy. His story always began with “There we were at 30,000 feet, the flack so thick you could walk on it.” On one of his missions his plane was shot down, with all but the pilot parachuting out. As the radio operator Snavely, per instructions, ate his code book (made of rice paper) so that the Germans would not capture it. He landed in a tree, broke his back, was captured by the Hitler Jugend, eventually wound up in a hospital, and then spent a year and a half in a POW camp, with very little to eat (this, according to Snavely, was true of the Germans as well). Of Pennsylvania Dutch descent, he knew enough of this German dialect to have some idea of what was going on in the camp and never spoke poorly of the treatment received at the hands of his captors.
Doing research with the Snake, a nickname he was given by someone who saw a Pogo cartoon that contained a character called Snavely the Snake, was a once-in-a- lifetime experience. The door to his office was always open to students. We talked about the latest attempt at some synthesis or why this compound was likely to behave in a certain way; we talked about C.S. Lewis and his books; we talked about stocks and the stock market (I remember him predicting that the DJIA would someday hit 10,000 in a year when it was barely over 1000); we talked about how to change the curriculum or the philosophy of science. These “bull sessions” in his office might last for several hours. Once a year he would invite his researchers to his house where his wonderful wife Emma would make a meal for us. If the Snake got off on one of his tangents, Emma would pat him on his bald head, and say “Now, now, Fred.” We loved it.
Fred was widely respected by other faculty members for his scholarship and his down to earth wisdom about academic matters. His respect for the academy and his country was perhaps most evident by the fact that at his request he was buried in his academic regalia while John Pfeiffer, a friend and the band director, played taps.
In addition to the publication that resulted from my undergraduate research, I have six other publications with Fred. Several were done in collaboration with him while I was in graduate school; the others were results of a mutual interest in several things when I returned to teach at F&M. In fact, the origin of my current research is to some extent traceable to Fred’s interest in double salts. Our General Chemistry textbook—the result of an extensive study of our curriculum in 1966—was coauthored by the two Freds and me.
Fred was frequently in the lab himself because he, too, enjoyed “playing” with those chemicals. He, Fred Suydam and I would go to coffee in the College Center most mornings, with the Snake frequently looking like he had just finished painting something—those streaks across his brow were azo pyrazolones, all brightly colored, a result of wiping sweat off his face with his chemical-stained hands.
In the classroom, Fred was the antithesis of the other Fred. Fred Suydam was probably the most organized and articulate lecturer I have ever heard. Snake, on the other hand, having read widely about many of the important figures in Chemistry, told many stories and made little attempt to present an organized lecture. It is interesting that I learned more from both of these professors than any others in spite of, or perhaps because of, their different styles. With Suydam it was really not necessary to read the text. With Snavely the book was absolutely essential reading.
I learned much from my mentor and friend and I know that he learned to at least tolerate Brubeck’s Take Five which I played at considerable volume in our research lab.