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Wednesday, September 29,2010

The Origins of a Nerd

Is Rick Snyder really a nerd?

by Kyle Melinn

The gubernatorial candidate claims he is the nerd those commercials say he is. His campaign mobile home is called the Nerdmobile.


We’ve heard about Snyder’s three college degrees by age 23. He’s obviously brilliant, but being brilliant doesn’t make you a nerd. He doesn’t wear glasses, let alone thick ones with thick lenses. He doesn’t wear a tie, let alone a bow tie. And where’s that pocket protector?


You can’t discount the question. Snyder endeared himself to Michigan between the 3rd and 4th quarter of the Super Bowl on this basis that he was "One Tough Nerd."


It’s not a stretch to say most of the 381,588 Michigan voters who voted him the Republican gubernatorial nominee did so knowing all of three things about him. He was a successful businessman. He wasn’t a career politician. He was a nerd. The end.


The first two bits of information aren’t hard to track down and verify. The biography on rickformichigan.com takes care of that. But the nerd part?


The New York Times’ poll aggregator Nate Silver gave the 52-year-old Ann Arbor venture capitalist and married father of three an 83 percent chance of being elected our 48th governor. We should at least make sure the nerd bit isn’t just some slick marketing gimmick birthed by Hollywood producer Fred Davis.


Snyder insists it’s not.


"(Davis) was going through my life history, and when we got done talking he came back and said that the one word that really stood out was the word ’nerd,’" Snyder said. "The reality is that I’ve always said I’m a nerd."


Greg Dunn disagrees.


Dunn, Snyder’s childhood pal, grew up in the 1960s two blocks away from Snyder’s childhood home on 22nd Street in Battle Creek.


"I’ve been asked this before, and I don’t think that Rick is a really nerd," Dunn said.


"To me when you think of a nerd, it’s someone who doesn’t have social skills. Someone who is an outcast, who doesn’t get along with other people. I certainly don’t think that fits in Rick’s case."


It wouldn’t be the first time the two disagreed on something. When they were old enough to care about politics, Dunn and Snyder had their own tooth-and-nail debates.


Dunn’s father was a teacher who took pride in his union. His mother was a Roosevelt New Deal Democrat.


Snyder’s father, Dale Snyder, bought a window cleaning business, but was best known later as a township official who joined the city commission when the city of Battle Creek and Battle Creek Township merged in 1982. Rick Snyder was a Republican who worked the phone banks for Gov. Bill Milliken’s reelection campaign in 1974.


Dunn would peel Republican bumper stickers off Snyder’s car and replace them with those of Democratic candidates. Snyder would peel the Dem stickers off Dunn’s car and replace them with Republicans.


Today, Dunn is the head of Atlas Sales, a beer distributor in Battle Creek and he’s been happy to help raise money for his old friend.


As kids, the two also liked to read. In kindergarten and 1st grade, Snyder bored quickly of what his classmates read and dove into the 4th-and 5thgrade readers his grown sister had left in the family house.


"I’m just one of those people who love to learn," Snyder, 52, said. "That’s one way to describe a nerd. I love to learn."


Dunn said he knows this factoid first hand. "I like to read and I read a lot of books," Dunn said. "I’ll tell you there were books that I’d check of the library. A lot of times the only other name on the checkout card for that book was Rick’s."


That doesn’t make him a nerd?


Dunn thought the Super Bowl ad was cute, a way to get people to know him. But he worried people wouldn’t take him seriously.


Snyder never had a problem taking anything he did seriously, whether it was his studies, his saxophone or anything else.


That said, he wasn’t good in sports (outside of wrestling) and was routinely picked last in gym class when teams were split up. That earned him a 6th grade friend in Terry Hill, who wasn’t very good at sports either.


"I was a serious history scholar, and Rick was more interested in learning than playing sports and horsing around," Hill said. "Not to say to we didn’t have our share of our adventures, he was more of a focused individual than a lot of kids are."


Now a farmer in a small town outside of Battle Creek, Hill said he remembers Snyder leading a small group of five students on a fairly in-depth Civil War project. Even then, Snyder led the discussion and listened to everybody’s ideas without prejudging anyone. Snyder had a knack for being able to make up a plan and execute it.


Lakeview
High School in the 1970s was like any other high school. The smarter
kids were picked on, but Snyder never let them get to him, Hill said.


There
was a realization that the teasers had their own weaknesses. Snyder
always found a way to exploit that without being mean about it.


"He
normally cut them to threads but in a nice way, a way that anyone with
two-thirds of their brain power could figure out what was going on," Hill
said. And it was not done maliciously. He’s a not a mean-spirited
person, but he was able to put a few people in their place."


Snyder
had a bit of a rebellious streak in him, too. He never failed a class,
but made it a point to make it known if he didn’t think there was enough
learning going on in class.


He
remembers one U.S. history class in particular where he didn’t see the
value in the class time. He said he "didn’t do anything constructive
during the class," breezed through someone’s notes before a test,
whipped through the test and got an A-.


"I drove a teacher or two fairly nuts, but I’ve grown out of that," Snyder quickly added. "I don’t do that any more."


Even
as a kid, Snyder was well grounded. Hill theorized it was because he
had older parents. His mom had Rick as a surprise in 1958 when she was
45. His sister was already 20 at the time.


His
dad was a quiet guy with a good, dry sense of humor. Dale Snyder was
brilliant on business, finance and accounting issues. For Rick Snyder,
the important thing was they supported his studies.


Snyder
still remembers thumbing through the Battle Creek Enquirer at the
family’s Gun Lake cottage in the summer of 1973. He came across a class
schedule for Kellogg Community College and was excited to see that he
didn’t need a high school diploma to take an introduction to business
class.


The 14-year-old Snyder showed the catalogue to his mom. He wanted to take the class.


"Mom
came back and said, ’Honey, it’s a wonderful idea that you want to do
that, but we can’t make it work because of the car situation in the
family and you can’t drive yet. You can’t do it now, but when you have
your license, we’ll talk then.’" Snyder remembered.


That next summer, when Snyder was 15, set to be 16 on Aug. 19, he came back with the catalogue and asked to take the class again.


"She just said, ’How much is it, honey?’ "I said, 'It’s $66 for three credit hours.'


I always remember that — $66 plus books and a registration fee.


"She
got up, got her checkbook and wrote me a check. You have to remember
this was a three-hour, Saturday morning, 8 a.m. class. How many mothers
would say, ’Sure.’ And $66 back then was still something. That just
showed a wonderful attitude."


Snyder
was off the races. By the middle of his senior year in high school,
Snyder had 23 credit hours from Kellogg Community College. At the time,
he was looking at Harvard, the University of Chicago, the University of
Michigan and Michigan State’s James Madison College.


His parents drove him to
Ann Arbor one fall afternoon to meet the associate director of
admissions at the time, a man named Lance Erickson. Snyder was admitted
to the university on the spot.


"They dropped me off
for the meeting … . I told (Erickson) my story and he told me, ’I want
you here Jan. 3. He goes, ’You’re in.’ You should get a bachelor’s in
General Studies. Do your own degree program. You’re in the University of
Michigan. I want you to start.


"My
parents had been driving around, so I go out to meet them and they
asked, ’How did the meeting go?’ "I said, ’Hey, I’m supposed to be here
Jan. 3."


His first
semester of his senior year at Lakeshore High School didn’t end until
the end of January, though. Even then he was one credit short. School
officials worked it out for him, though.


His
teachers gave him some projects so he could finish up his last three
weeks. Lakeshore let him use that first Introduction to Business class
at KCC to satisfy that last credit, which worked out great because it
was the only class that didn’t transfer to the University of Michigan.


Snyder
worked his way through school, but not flipping burgers or stocking
shelves. He walked on campus and scored a graduate student-level job in
the Institute for Social Research as a researcher.


"That, again, is where it paid off to be a nerd," Snyder said. "I demonstrated the capability so I got the job."


From
there, Snyder’s college career took off. In receiving his Bachelor’s of
General Studies degree, he graduated with high distinctions. He was the
top 10 in his MBA class. In law school, Snyder claims he relaxed and
"had more fun."


By
the time he was done, he was 23.


Snyder had two options coming out of
the University of Michigan. Option 1: Work at Coopers & Lybrand (now
PricewaterhouseCoopers) in Detroit. Option 2: Work for 30 percent more
money in Houston.


He picked the former. Still, the young Snyder was a
bit intimidated. He only knew two people in Metro Detroit. He’d never
been to a Detroit Tigers game. But the company hooked him up with a
mentor, Jerry Wolfe, a legend of sorts in the Detroit tax community.
Normally it takes 10 years to become a partner. Snyder became a partner
in six.


After he
became a partner, the company transferred him to a new Chicago office to
run the mergers and acquisition section. As such, his job was to run
research on a company that a client was interested in acquiring. He then
advised the client if it was a good or bad idea.


"It
was a great opportunity," Snyder said. "I was looking at 50 companies a
year — everything from steel foundries to psychiatric hospitals. It was
a great experience."


One
of the clients was Ted Waite, the head of a growing computer company
called Gateway. Waite wanted to buy a notebook computer company in the
Chicago area. Snyder looked into it and suggested he take a pass.


The
two hit it off and Waite eventually asked him to move to South Dakota
and help him run Gateway. Waite knew marketing and products, but needed
someone to manage the operation. That’s where Snyder came in. He jumped
at the opportunity.


"This
place was literally one metal building with a gravel parking lot and an
alfalfa field when I got out there," Snyder remembered. "We couldn’t
even get to our house because it was in back of an alfalfa field covered
with mud."


Snyder
watched the company grow from 763 employees when he started to 10,000.
He loved the experience, but when Waite wanted to move the company to
California, Snyder said he wanted to return to Michigan. He stayed on
the Gateway board, but his full-time job was getting into venture
capital funds, which is what he was doing when he decided to run for
governor.


His partners agreed to handle the day-to-day operations while Snyder took the leap.


As for Snyder being governor on Jan. 1, 2011, Dunn, said Snyder will make a good one.


"Rick’s
success in life doesn’t surprise me. He was always different from the
other kids. He is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, and he was
always focused," Dunn said. "He’s has great moral character. He’s driven
to be successful at whatever he does and I hope that translates well
for him as governor."


Dunn
was given another crack at the nerd question. After going through the
origins of Snyder’s remarkable scholastic and business successes, was he
sure his old friend wasn’t a nerd?


Dunn wavered.


"I guess I should caution you," he said.


"I don’t think he’s a nerd, but my wife thinks we both are. I guess you ought to take what I say with a grain of salt."


"So maybe it doesn’t take one to know one, after all," he was asked.


"Maybe I’m in nerd denial myself," he said.

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