In 2004, Don and Dee Snyder discussed their next philanthropic commitments and decided to write two checks that day, a $1 million check to help build The Smith Center for the Performing Arts and another for $1 million to the UNLV Foundation.
“It had to be the best day of our lives,” Don Snyder said, adding that $2 million was a high percentage of their net worth.
He was heading both fundraising efforts and knew that if he was going to be asking for money “it was important to show that I had done the same.”
Countless honors have come their way during his career as a banker, Boyd Gaming executive, acting UNLV president, dean of the UNLV Hotel College, adviser to the UNLV president and philanthropist.
Their biggest honor? The one that touches their hearts the most?
They’ve had a school named after them: Don and Dee Snyder Elementary School in southwest Las Vegas.
“I can’t think of any bigger honor than to have a school named after us,” said the man who was named philanthropist of the year in 2013 by Gov. Brian Sandoval.
Tuesday is the formal dedication of the school, which opened in January at 8951 W. Ford Ave., and the couple couldn’t be happier. Or prouder of the particular school that bears their names. Some 355 people are expected to attend and honor the couple.
It’s a STEAM school with a robotics program. STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics.
“There are not many robotics programs in elementary schools in Nevada, and the kids love it. Kids are so intrigued by the increasing capacity of technology. It’s a very tech-savvy school,” said Terra Cook, a gifted-education specialist at the school.
The Snyders plan to be very active at the school, Dee especially. They described the joy of walking through the school and being greeted by enthusiastic elementary students.
“When it comes to naming a school, I can’t imagine a more deserving couple than Don and Dee. They have, as a team, helped countless organizations around the valley for many years,” wrote Myron Martin, the president and CEO at the Smith Center.
“I have had the pleasure of working with Don for 20 years now and can tell you that he is the hardest-working, most prepared, most caring business executive I have ever known. There wouldn’t be a Smith Center without him,” Martin emphasized.
Longtime schools supporter
Martin reminded me that Don Snyder played an instrumental role in helping the Clark County School District shape its bond offering, when new schools were greatly needed.
“So the guy who helped the city to build new schools more than a decade ago now has a new school named after him and his extraordinary wife and partner, Dee,” Martin wrote.
The Snyders, married in 1971, have engaged in philanthropic efforts since moving to Las Vegas in 1987 and even before that during their 18 years in California. The couple, who met at a California bank, where she was a teller and he was entering a bank management program, have always worked together to improve their community. Theirs is a true partnership.
Education, culture, social infrastructure are all part of building a community, the Snyders believe, and that’s the philosophy that guides the philanthropic decisions they make. They’ve found that it’s easier to ask others for money if they have donated first.
The Snyders were the first million-dollar donors for the Smith Center, the first founders, even before the Reynolds Foundation launched its $150 million donation. Don Snyder headed the fundraising effort for the center.
The center is named after newspaper executive Fred Smith and his wife, Mary, and they were so impressed “that Dee and I made our $1 million personal commitment that he and Mary committed a personal gift of $1 million,” Don Snyder said.
The Snyders didn’t inherit fortunes. They come from humble beginnings. Don Snyder’s dad was a farmer in South Dakota, and the family had no running water for the first three years of his life. He put himself through college. Her mother was a nurse, her father a factory worker.
They worked for what they have, raising three children.
Many wonder why he doesn’t run for politics. He knows numbers, understands policy and communicates clearly. Dee Snyder would be a huge asset, able to talk to anyone anytime about anything.
He has a well-crafted answer because it’s a question he’s often asked: “I’d rather define myself by the work I do than have a political opponent define me by what they don’t want me to do.”
Through their philanthropy, the Snyders have made this a better community in countless ways. Students attending the Don and Dee Snyder Elementary School can be proud of their school’s namesakes.
Jane Ann Morrison’s column runs Sundays in the Nevada section. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0275. Follow @janeannmorrison on Twitter.