A Ferris State BMOC both then and now
In May 1969, Snead was a 25-year-old married pre-med student at Ferris State College and the recently elected president of the school’s student chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Racial discord had been festering at Ferris since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. a year earlier, and in May 1969, the unrest burst out in violent riots on campus with fighting between blacks and whites. Many were injured, and in one of the clashes, about 10 students were arrested, both black and white.
One of those arrested was Snead, whose car had been overturned in his dormitory parking lot by white students.
“I had made up my mind I was leaving” Ferris, recalled Snead. But the president of the college came to see him in jail and appealed to him to instead join with others in helping to end the trouble.
Snead, who was exonerated while the other students were expelled, did help end the discord, using his leadership and public speaking abilities and running for and serving as vice president of the Ferris student government.
Last November, he was elected chair of the FSU board of trustees, the first black graduate of Ferris to chair the board. In a few days, he will be honored again when the Woodrick Diversity Learning Center at Grand Rapids Community College will present him with one of 13 2011 Giants Awards.
The awards have been presented annually since 1983 to African-American individuals or organizations whose community contributions have shaped the history and improved the quality of life in Grand Rapids. Each of the awards is named after a local individual who “has given excellence and is a perpetual memorial to his or her notable contributions,” according to the GRCC website. Snead will be presented with the William Glenn Trailblazer Award.
The young man whose first jobs were in Grand Rapids at Doehler-Jarvis and Lear Siegler never did end up in medicine. While still in school, Snead worked as an orderly at Blodgett Hospital in the pediatric ward. The death of a 5-year-old girl who was a patient in the ward made Snead realize that “I wasn’t cut out to be a doc. I was devastated.”
He received a degree in biology/pre-medicine from Ferris in 1971, with a minor in English, “but I really never used it,” he said.
Ronald E. Snead Sr.
“When I was growing up, our neighborhood was like an extended family,” he said. Everyone knew everyone else, he said, and if a youngster did something wrong in public, “the neighbors had the right to spank you, and then when you got home, you got another one for disgracing the family.”
The Snead family wasn’t typical for the times, however. His father, John D. Snead, was a native of Paducah, Ky., who had earned a degree at Kentucky State College with a dual major in sociology and music. Despite his degree, he was not able find a job in social work because of discrimination in hiring that was rampant throughout the U.S. at the time. But he was an excellent trumpet player and supported himself by playing with some of the famous big bands of the era. One night, his band played a gig in Grand Rapids, midway between gigs in Chicago and Detroit, and that was when he met his wife-to-be. Soon, he was settled here and starting a family.
Ron Snead avidly recalls his father introducing him to Lena Horne and Della Reese when he was still a teenager, through his father’s involvement in the music industry.
During the war, Snead’s father served in the segregated U.S. Army in the South Pacific as a captain. Despite his accomplishments in the military and in college, back in Grand Rapids, John Snead could only find work in a factory. Then he landed a job as an agent at a small black company that sold insurance to the black community.
The major insurance companies tended to ignore the black community back then, according to Ron, but in the early 1960s, the big companies saw the potential in the African-American market and soon put the small, black agencies out of business. His father finally landed a job with the Michigan Department of Social Services and retired from that position after 20 years. John Snead, too, was a recipient of a GRCC Giants Award, in 1991.
The first half of Ron Snead’s career was in defense industries; the second half was in automotive. His first job after college was as a subcontract administrator — a buyer of large volumes — at the company then known as Lear Siegler (today, GE Aviation).
In 1979, he accepted the job of program manager at Teledyne Continental in Muskegon, which later became General Dynamics and is now L3 Communications Combat Propulsion Systems. Snead was heavily involved with the Hummer contract, and when that vehicle contract was moved to AM General in Livonia, Snead was recruited by that company to serve as its director of government relations.
From 1988 to 1994, he was a sales rep for Maybee Associates in Brighton, managing the firm’s business in West Michigan and northern Indiana. Most of that business involved tubular products, cable manufacturing and assembly, and molded plastics.
In 1994, he became director of account management at Trumark Inc. in Lansing, a manufacturer of medium to heavy stampings.
“That was the first minority-owned company I ever worked for,” he said. It was owned by a pair of African-American brothers who were both Harvard educated.
Snead also held management positions at Thomas Madison Inc. of St. Clair Shores and Vibration Controls Technologies in Plymouth. Then he went to work at Dixien LLC, a tier one supplier providing metal stampings and plastic molded parts for the auto industry. The company’s main customers are BMW, Ford and Nissan.
Snead served as vice president of corporate relations at Dixien, which has its headquarters near Atlanta. He worked for Dixien from his home in Greenville, but he also traveled a lot for the company, he said. He decided to retire in 2006 when Dixien wanted to transfer him to the home office.
Ron and Dee Snead have lived in Greenville for 20 years. They decided to settle there because Dee is originally from Remus, about 25 miles to the north, and still has relatives there. Greenville is approximately midway between Ron and Dee’s two hometowns.
Snead said he wasn’t ready to retire when Dixien forced the issue, but he notes that he “probably wouldn’t be there now anyway, because automotive took such a big hit” in the recession.
He said his priorities as board chair at Ferris will include increasing the diversity of the faculty and staff, improving student retention and graduation rates, and maintaining strong fiscal management.
The biggest challenge facing FSU, said Snead, is funding.
“It used to be that two-thirds of it came from the state and one-third from tuition. Now it’s just the opposite,” he said, which puts a tremendous burden on students and their families.
Snead was first appointed to the Ferris board in 2005 by Gov. Jennifer Granholm and will complete an eight-year term as a trustee in 2012. He has had the honor of working with nine of the university’s 18 presidents since his days as an undergraduate to the present.
“We cannot turn our state and country around without education,” Snead explained. “We need to work collaboratively — at the university level and community level — to continue fostering initiatives that make Ferris State an inclusive and diverse educational institution that will meet Michigan’s need for an increased knowledge base.”
A 1995 Ferris Distinguished Alumnus Award recipient, Snead is a former member of The Ferris Foundation and Jim Crow Museum boards, and has served on several university search committees. He continues to support minority merit scholarship initiatives.
At the state level, he has been on the board of the Girl Scouts in Western Michigan, second vice chair of the Michigan State Conference of NAACP chapters for 10 years, and was a governor-appointee to the panel that selected 16 draft boards in West Michigan in 1981.
Snead said he is saddened by the fact that many military personnel being wounded or killed in Iraq and Afghanistan today are from the poorer ranks of Americans who joined the military because of a lack of higher education and the resulting lack of job opportunity.
“I never thought I’d see it like this,” he said, referring to the weak economy and high unemployment today.
If America had a draft again, “where everyone’s kid could be drafted,” the nation would not be so quick to go to war, he said.