A.C. Snow’s Rules for 2021

Katherine Snow Smith shares guidance for the future within her father’s wisdom from the past.
photography by Madeline Gray

When WALTER asked me if my dad, longtime columnist A.C. Snow, might have some guidance for the new year, he was hesitant. “Just because you’re so old you don’t buy green bananas doesn’t mean you’re wise,” he laughed. But together, we came up with a few thoughts, many of which draw from columns he wrote in The Raleigh Times and The News & Observer over the past 70 years. We don’t know what this year will bring, but we hope you will find that these lessons from the past still ring true.

See the person, not the politics 

In a 1979 column titled Of No Concern to Jesse, my liberal dad took conservative Senator Jesse Helms to task: “I think prayer in the schools would have caused me to defect to the Devil long ago. That’s why I am repelled by Senator Jesse Helms’ continuing insistence on prayer in the schools,” he wrote.

But when my sister died in a car accident in 1996, Helms was the first person to call the day her obituary ran. He made the first donation in her honor to the Raleigh S.P.C.A. My father visited Helms several times at Mayview Convalescent Center before the senator died in 2008. They were political opponents, but also saw each other as fathers, husbands and humans. 

Embrace Chaos

After my dad added a home office to the master bedroom, he realized he couldn’t work in the quiet. “I miss the kitchen — someone to listen to, the aroma of things cooking, the chatter of children smearing jelly and peanut butter. And the teapot is near,” he wrote. Keep that in mind when the commute to the office again becomes the norm.

Wonder at Nature

“I have no patience with skeptics who regard [birdwatching] as a prissy pastime,” my father wrote. “See an ordinarily ferocious red-bellied woodpecker gently stuff waffle crumbs down his baby son’s throat. Behold the robin strutting across the lawn like a Cornwallis redcoat… And then there are people still visited by bluebirds. They are the anointed.” 

Value Fleeting Connections

“Strangers are the best people to know. They make no demands; you make no commitments,” he wrote, after watching my mother share her pound cake recipe with a woman from Oregon at the baggage claim at San Francisco International Airport.

Show your Pride

“When the Chicago Bulls won the NBA championship, I thought: What a Father’s Day gift!” my father wrote. “And what a comment from James R. Jordan: sitting in the locker room with his arm around his weeping son, he said to reporters, This is something I raised.

“No matter if it’s a superstar soaring to impossible heights, a daughter waking across the stage in cap and gown or a prodigal son, coming home from college with four Cs and a D dragging a tail pipe in the driveway — you can’t deny the heart, which skips a beat and whispers to the soul: This is something I raised.”

If Mama Ain’t Happy, Ain’t Nobody Happy

My dad saw this mantra on a bumper sticker in 1994, and he agreed: “A woman has so many duties, so many responsibilities and her influence is so inclusive that her mood can make or break a day for an entire family,” my dad wrote. This came not from a place of sexism, but of gratitude. He often professed that women were the saviors of society and should be thanked often — and he did. 

See the Skill Behind the Score

“We have come a long way since women wore heels, fur coats and their best dresses to Saturday games,” he penned in 1993, after finding himself overdressed in a blazer and tie at a Carolina football game at Kenan Memorial Stadium. Then he recommended George Plimpton’s book Paper Lion, about the writer’s five weeks playing preseason with the Detroit Lions, to remind fans that it’s still worth it to show respect for the game.

“Tell me,” he wrote, “is there a better classroom where the lessons of life are taught more dramatically and effectively than here? Like the Romans of old, unfortunately, many fans enjoy the violence and the final score more than they appreciate the skill, the timing and endurance that the game commands. It’s the latter that I take off my tie to.”

Keep it Short

“I can count on one hand the number of speeches that I wished would last longer than they did. The vast majority of orations could be cut by half with no harm done. Consider the length of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address: 135 words. In Genesis, it took only 10 words to tell of the Creation.

“A two-minute egg is tolerable; a three-minute egg is too hard to intake. So it is with speeches.”

Recognize Courage, and Pain

“I was never called on to be heroic, so I don’t know if I could have been or not,” my father, who served in World War II, wrote on the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. “I would have done whatever I was told to do. Kids obeyed orders. That’s what most of us were — just kids. 

“As an airman in a troop carrier squadron, I never faced hand to hand combat and escaped without becoming an unread book, interrupted in mid-chapter by an enemy bullet.

“But we buried several of my less lucky friends in lonely graves, now overgrown by jungle. We stood at attention as Taps sounded and flags were folded, then left them there on Philippine islands, lulled in death by gentle waves lapping against long-forgotten coral shores.”

Whether for soldiers overseas, or healthcare workers on the frontlines here, ask to hear their stories, acknowledge their strength or simply let them in front of you in line at the grocery store. Courage of all kinds deserves kindness. 

Appreciate Life, Every Minute

“The only thing I can give you for the new decade is a thought from Emily in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town,” my father wrote in his column at the end of 1979. In the classic 1938 play, Emily has died, but has been given the chance to relive her 12th birthday. She’s dismayed because nobody appreciates the mundane yet beautiful moments of the ordinary day.

“Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? Every, every minute?” she asks the stage manager.

“No,” he answers. “Saints and poets, maybe they do some.”

This year, let’s all try to be more like the saints and poets.