Professor leaves legacy of hope

Psychology department's Rick Snyder remembered for positive influence

Rick Snyder wanted to spread hope to others.

“My goal is to get just a few people to live their lives more hopefully,” Snyder told the Journal-World in 2004. “I think if you do that, maybe hope can have a ripple effect. I don’t have any grandiose goals or anything, but I think it can make a difference if we just try to instill hope in our own small corners of the world.”

The Kansas University distinguished psychology professor and pioneer in the positive-psychology movement died Tuesday of cancer. He was 61.

“We will all miss him and feel a tremendous loss,” Chancellor Robert Hemenway said in a prepared statement.

Snyder is survived by his wife, Rebecca, two sons, Zachary Snyder and James Kemerling, a daughter, Staci Kemerling, and two grandchildren.

Rick Snyder, a distinguished professor of psychology at Kansas University, died Tuesday at age 61. Snyder, whose research focused on hope, had been in KU's psychology program since 1972.

Snyder was born Dec. 26, 1944. The child of a salesman father and elementary school teacher, Snyder moved several times in childhood, including stints in Texas and California. In his youth, he was a Golden Gloves amateur boxer.

His daughter said she believed Snyder’s adventurous childhood gave him the ability to make easy conversation with anyone.

He received a bachelor’s degree in psychology at Southern Methodist University, a master’s degree in psychology from Vanderbilt University and a doctoral degree in clinical psychology with a minor in research methodology at Vanderbilt. He also completed post-doctoral work.

Snyder arrived at KU in 1972, one of several new faculty in the psychology department. From 1974 to 2001, he was director of the clinical psychology program at KU.

He was internationally known for his work at the interface of clinical, social, personality and health psychology, according to KU. His theories pertained to how people react to personal feedback, the human need for uniqueness, the ubiquitous drive to excuse transgressions and the hope motive.

Working through pain

Snyder suffered from chronic pain, though he rarely spoke of it.

“He’d maybe mention it once a year,” said Hal Shorey, a doctoral candidate who worked with Snyder.

Fellow KU psychology professor Ray Higgins said he thought Snyder’s research grew out of his efforts to cope with his own physical pain.

A tireless worker, Snyder wrote or edited 23 books and hundreds of articles. He received 31 research and 27 teaching awards.

“He could balance and juggle an unbelievable number of activities simultaneously and make progress on all of them,” Higgins said.

Annette Stanton, now a professor at the University of California-Los Angeles, was a faculty member in KU’s psychology department for many years.

She recalled how Snyder would secretly nominate colleagues for awards and work to get students the best internships.

“He was a champion of the clinical program and of the department of psychology,” Stanton said.

Shorey recalled sending e-mails to Snyder in the early hours of the morning and receiving a quick reply.

“For him it was really a labor of love,” Shorey said. “It was a creative endeavor, not a job.”

Many acts of kindness

KU psychology professor Douglas Denney, who worked with Snyder for more than 30 years, said that after his colleague’s death, he found himself thinking about all the little acts of kindness Snyder extended over the years.

“He was a person who was surprisingly kind for all of the talent he had and all of the intellectual powers,” Denney said.

Denney recalled a time when he dreaded the painting he had to do to his home’s interior. After hearing Denney’s complaints, Snyder showed up unexpectedly on painting day and lent a hand.

He was dedicated and consistent, hard-working, and he exuded a sense of inner peace, said Richard McCallum, a professor and director of gastroenterology and hepatology at KU Medical Center.

“He has that way of projecting himself that makes you aware of how good we could all be,” McCallum said. “He’s kind of a gold standard that we will be judged by.”

Michael Rapoff, a professor and division chief of behavioral pediatrics at KU Medical Center, said Snyder had to work with the rather large egos of academics, but he never said a harsh word about others, even when they were unkind.

“He’s just one of the most selfless people that I’ve ever met in my life,” Rapoff said.

Snyder juggled. He loved KU’s basketball program. He loved to fish. He, Higgins and Denney referred to themselves as the “Three Amigos.”

Snyder bought property north of town that had a pond where the family went swimming and fishing. Snyder will be laid to rest there.

His son Zachary said Snyder always told him that life was a journey with many pathways. There are roadblocks on the path to achieving your goals, Zachary recalled his father telling him.

And, Zachary said, his father would say, “In the end you have hope. It’s hope for the journey.”