NEW PORT RICHEY — After 28 years of teaching, Les Snyder wasn't planning on any fanfare, just a low-key kind of exit into retirement.
"There are several of us retiring: Jerry Young, Paul Girardi, Barbara Munday, Ann Cuttler," Snyder said, rattling off names as he sat in the Gulf High classroom where he has conducted well more than 3,000 labs.
In fact, today will be the last day for about 82 teachers retiring countywide. Why then, he was wondering, would anyone want to single him out?
Maybe it's the fact that Snyder, 61, has always been "totally committed to Gulf High," according to fellow teacher Jeff Miller. "He volunteers to help with activities after school and on weekends and attends all of our events."
"Any time you lose a veteran teacher like Les, it's tough on the school because of his curriculum knowledge, his with-it-ness and just his overall classroom management," added Gulf principal Steve Knobl.
"He's one of those teachers that just has it figured out on all angles."
Growing up Gulf
And Snyder is more than just a veteran teacher. Gulf is in his blood.
Every year, he gives out the scholarship in his dad's name to a student-athlete. The baseball field is dedicated to his dad, Rudy, who was Gulf's valedictorian of the Class of 1931 despite attending school just one day a week because he had to work on a local poultry farm to help support his family during the Depression.
As president of the booster club, Rudy Snyder was an avid supporter of high school athletics and oversaw the construction of Gulf's football stadium, which his son helped design. That first design of the field, which was recently demolished behind what is now Schwettman Education Center, was drawn on a cocktail napkin at a local bar.
The only child of Rudy and Mabel Snyder grew up in New Port Richey during a time when folks looked after one another and kids had the same complaints of nothing to do.
"When I was a kid, if you walked downtown on a school day because you had a dentist appointment or something, three or four people would ask you why you weren't in school," Snyder said.
Still, after school or over the weekend, you could stroll down Montana Avenue with a .22 rifle in your hand to shoot cans in the sandpit or rats at the city dump and no one said a word.
"It was a completely different time back then," Snyder said. "People never locked their doors. I walked to school as a first-grader, crossed two sets of railroad tracks. We had a lot of freedom. We were latchkey kids before they invented the term."
Settling into teaching
In 1965, Snyder was named Gulf's salutatorian and Best All Around Student among a class that included Fred Marchman, Dr. Robert Goluba and future County Administrator John Gallagher.
Snyder, who is not married, worked for a time at a local lawn mower repair shop and the Stauffer Chemical Company in Tarpon Springs before enlisting in the Air Force, where he served as a radio traffic analyst.
He earned his degree in political science in 1974 from the University of Florida and ended up substitute teaching. After a few years, he became a full-time science teacher, working for two years at Gulf Junior High before transferring to Gulf High, where he has been ever since.
Over the years, he has adapted to progress — from a mimeograph copying machine to floppy discs to zip drives — but still relied on some old-fashioned techniques, opting to use overhead projectors instead of PowerPoint.
Snyder focused on teaching note-taking skills, knowing that would help students succeed in college. And at the start of each school year, he told his students to be more concerned with their integrity and what he thought of them as people rather than the grade they could get.
In other words: "Do your own work."
He oversaw about 24 labs each year because he knew well that hands-on activities could incite a yen for learning.
"Science is a tough subject for some," he said. "But even the kid who doesn't do well will get something out of a lab."
On the last day of school for students, they honored him with chocolate cake and a "Happy Retirement" banner covered with their signatures.
Snyder said he will miss spending his time with the younger set.
"I enjoy the kids," he said. "I look in the mirror, and I see an old guy looking back. But I don't feel that way. I think being around 14- and 15-year-olds rejuvenates you."
But it's time to go, Snyder said. He flirted with the idea of staying on one more year until a good friend of his suffered a heart attack. Now is the time to take care of himself, he decided.
"I'm getting tired," he acknowledged. "And I wanted to walk away when I still had a good feeling. Some of the teachers that stay too long, they lose that."
Snyder will be back to attend those much enjoyed high school sporting events.
"I'd rather watch high school ball any day over professional ball," he said. "I like to watch the kids who play just for the love of the game."
Plans of travel, riding his Yamaha motorcycle and spending more time at his favored hobby of competitive rifle, pistol and shotgun shooting await him.
"I don't know that I'll do retirement well," Snyder said, "but I'm going to give it shot."
Michele Miller can be reached at [email protected] or at (727) 869-6251.