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Education is key foundation in Nancy McCarthy Snyder’s life

Paul Stevens

Growing up in a two-story brick house on 16th Street, a block away from Duncombe School, Nancy McCarthy Snyder has always believed there was “something in the water” that seemed to promote education in the Fort Dodge neighborhood where she and her four sisters grew up in the 1950s and ’60s.

Living next door were the McCormicks, a family of four boys – John, an engineer; Mark, an attorney who was an Iowa Supreme Court justice; Jim, a priest who did mission work in Africa; and Dick, who became CEO of USWest.

On the other side of their house were the Marquises – Jeri, who taught kindergarten at Duncombe for many years; Forrest, who was principal at Fort Dodge Senior High; and their son Bob, who became a physician.

Across the street were the Galasks – with two boys, Rudy, who is a physician in Iowa City, and Bob, who studied at the Gemological Institute of America and has been in the diamond business in Los Angeles for more than 35 years.

Next to them were the Paulins – Tom, Lynn, Margaret Ann and Donna. All went to college, Lynn receiving a PhD.

And then there were the five McCarthy girls – daughters of Margaret and Cliff McCarthy – the first in either parent’s family to attend college.

“My parents never expected us to go to college and didn’t have much savings,” Snyder said. “My sister Judy put herself through her engineering degree while working full-time as an x-ray tech. The rest of us had significant financial aid. Mostly scholarships based on both academic achievement and financial need, but also some loans and on-campus work study jobs. I worked in the cafeteria at Clarke (College) to earn spending money and book money.”

“Both parents were really intelligent people who never had the opportunity for higher education,” said Snyder of her father, one of 10 children, who never attended high school and worked as a superintendent at Fort Dodge Limestone until his death in 1972, and her mother, who worked in the kitchen at Lutheran Hospital while her husband served in World War II and won the Distinguished Flying Cross as a tail gunner on a B-24 Liberator bomber.

“The five of us girls had very deep blue-collar roots.”

Nancy, the oldest, a self-professed “incurable academic,” retired in 2016 after serving nearly 40 years on the faculty of Wichita State University, most recently as the director of the Hugo Wall School of Public Affairs. She holds a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Clarke College in Dubuque and master’s and doctorate degrees in economics from Southern Illinois University. In August, Nancy was appointed by Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly to the WSU Board of Trustees. She also serves on the board of directors of Kansas Action for Children, a nonpartisan organization committed to improving the lives of Kansas children and families.

About those sisters: ike her, all St. Edmond High School graduates:

Judy McCarthy, who has an engineering degree from Portland State and an MBA from Temple University, worked for AT&T and then served as manager of the statewide AmeriCorps program; she lives in Des Moines. Cathy, who earned a law degree from George Washington University, worked for a multi-county social welfare organization in Culpepper, Virginia, where she lives. Jean, who earned a bachelor’s degree from Grinnell College and a master’s in public administration from Harvard University, lives in Columbia, Maryland, where she is a systems engineer who consults on internet security issues.Maureen, who has bachelor’s degrees from Upper Iowa University and Georgetown University, lives in Des Moines where she works for Casey’s as an employee relations specialist.

“My family clearly values education and it has served us well,” Snyder said. “Education exposes us to the reality that many other people experience life differently than we do. We all think we’re ‘typical,’ but in fact we’re all limited in our outlooks on life. Education should make us more tolerant and compassionate. Having said that I think it’s a mistake to equate education and college. Everyone doesn’t need to go to college to make important contributions to society. We need lots of different skills to make society and the economy work. I worry that if there’s too much emphasis on degrees and jobs and income, that many hard-working, kind and generous people feel disrespected and undervalued. I believe there’s too much hierarchy in our world. All people deserve to be respected for their contributions, not just those with fancy job titles and high incomes.”

Snyder has lived in Wichita since 1977, moving there with her husband, Jim, when he received a job offer from Wichita State. They met in Dubuque in her first year at Clarke College, introduced by Jim’s roommate at Loras College, Steve Stedman of Fort Dodge. Jim was drafted into the Army in 1968 and served a year with the Army Signal Corps in Vietnam. They married in 1970 and after nearly 46 years together, Jim died three years ago of a rare and aggressive form of appendix cancer; Nancy believes it originated from his service in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.

Like her sisters and her husband, the education gene passed on to their three children. Oldest daughter Abby has a degree in education from WSU and is a program manager for the AmeriCorps program in the Derby, Kansas, school district. Liz has a bachelor’s in social work from the University of Kansas and a master’s from the University of Minnesota, where she worksfor the UMN Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare. Son John has a bachelor’s from Grinnell and a master’s in statistics from Ohio State and lives in Salt Lake City doing statistical analysis in oncology.

“We’re kind of an overeducated family,” Snyder said.

Growing up in the McCarthy home, Snyder recalled, three of the girls shared one bedroom and two were in the other; their parents took the smallest bedroom.

“There was no dithering in the bathroom,” she said. “We did our hair in the dining room where there was a buffet and large mirror. It was great training. I can still be up and ready to go anywhere in about 15 minutes — 30 if I need a shower. The same can’t be said for Maureen, who had the house and Mom to herself for her entire four years of high school!

“My fondest memories of Fort Dodge have to do with the freedom we had. At very young ages we played outside, circled our block endlessly. One of our favorite family stories is when my sister Jean ‘ran away from home’ when she was about 4. My mom watched her all the way and saw her stop at the corner (just two houses down) because she knew she wasn’t allowed to cross the street by herself. She sat there for a while and made it home safe and sound. We were all pretty virtuous rule followers!

“We walked or rode our bikes everywhere. Even in kindergarten I walked the 1.5 blocks to Duncombe School. When I transferred to Corpus Christi in 4th grade, I walked the longer route. It was a different time. Even in Fort Dodge it probably couldn’t be duplicated today.”

At. St. Edmond, two sisters played significant roles in her life, Snyder said.

“Being in debate with Sister Joan Patricia had a huge impact – learning about public policy, civic responsibility. Sister Mary St. David got me so interested in math. I was a math major. She took me and Mary Condon and Diane Jankowiak and taught intro calculus on our own.”

“My Catholic education taught me that the beatitudes and the two great commandments to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves should guide our lives. I’ve tried to live a life of service to others. Teaching young professionals to be effective local government managers to make sure that democratic institutions function efficiently and effectively for the people, to produce research on public policies related to public finance and social welfare policy and to apply that research to solve problems have been my passion. I believe strongly that individuals like me, who are blessed with good fortune, good parents, good health, and intelligence have a responsibility to help make the world a better place for those who were not so blessed.

“It may sound sappy but there’s never been a minute of my life when I doubted I was loved. That’s huge. It gives you trust in institutions, limits the extent of cynicism that can drive a life. It makes you, at least for me, recognize how important it is to care about the people less fortunate than we are. Recognition of good fortune and a responsibility to make the world a better place – these learned from Catholic schools.

Next on her agenda – “I keep moving, I don’t let myself stand still” – an 11-day cruise tour to the Greek Isles with her other retired sisters, Cathy and Judy. What kind of tour? A Road Scholartour, of course.