Snowden to retire after serving four decades and four presidents
Marcia Snowden, who retires this month as assistant to the president, has what President Emeritus Robert Goheen terms “golden durability.” “Service to four Princeton presidents over a span of more than three decades is, I am sure, unmatched in Princeton history,” he noted. (photo: Denise Applewhite)
Princeton NJ — In 1961, 21-year-old Marcia Snowden was looking for a job after completing her associate’s degree at Keystone Junior College in La Plume, Pa.
“I liked junior college and I thought, ‘This is a nice atmosphere — maybe I could get a job working at a place like this,’” she said. Snowden sent letters to Princeton and Cornell and received a response — and later an offer to join the clerical staff — from Princeton.
That unexceptional beginning launched a remarkable 40-year career for Snowden, who has spent most of that time as a key staff member in the Princeton president’s office. Now 65, Snowden plans to retire as assistant to the president on Dec. 31.
Those with whom she has worked praise Snowden’s wisdom, judgment, calmness and humor — not to mention her ability to juggle a multitude of high-priority tasks.
“As a gatekeeper and someone who has to manage the thousands of requests that come in this office, she does it with enormous intelligence, grace, humor, kindness and empathy for others,” said President Tilghman, who has worked with Snowden for four and a half years. “And she keeps her good nature through it all.”
Harold Shapiro, with whom Snowden worked during his presidency from 1988 to 2001, added, “The reason that Marcia became so indispensable in that role is not only that she’s had a lot of experience and therefore knows a lot, but she has a sense of judgment and a kind of wisdom about how one might think through things that is just rather extraordinary.”
Changing the master plan
Snowden’s first job at Princeton was in the Office of Research Administration for three years. Then she left to work for a church-related student organization in Lausanne, Switzerland.
“I had no intention of coming back to Princeton,” said Snowden, who is a native of Phillipsburg, N.J. “The master plan was to go to the Pacific Northwest.”
But upon returning to the States in 1967, she visited the campus and ended up with a job in the treasurer’s office. After less than a year, she moved to the president’s office, working on Robert Goheen’s secretarial staff.
When both Goheen and his principal secretary retired in 1972, William Bowen asked Snowden to be his administrative assistant. Since then, her job has been to ensure that the activities of the president are managed effectively and efficiently.
Snowden has coordinated the president’s schedule, prepared briefings, overseen travel arrangements, assisted with special events, managed agendas and prepared materials for meetings, and handled the president’s writing and correspondence.
“Bill described my job as ‘central controlling intelligence,’” Snowden said with a smile. “When we have gone through exercises during which we had to put down our goals, my job description was ‘to do what needs to be done.’ My goal was always ‘to get through the semester.’”
Bowen said his 16 years working with Snowden were “a remarkable learning experience” for him.
“Marcia was (is) so smart, so thoughtful and so unfailingly cheerful that she gave all of us who worked with her a new sense of human possibilities! She was also incredibly patient, certainly with me,” said Bowen, who was a member of the economics faculty. “She even seemed attentive when I tried to explain the principle of comparative advantage to her — having no other ‘student-victims’ close at hand.
“And somehow she managed to put up with my impatience,” he continued. “I remember one morning calling her from the Princeton airport at, I believe, 7 a.m. (actually it was 6:55 a.m.) to complain that a plane that was supposed to pick me up at 7 a.m. was not there. She said something like: ‘Well, the plane is due at 7 a.m. and it’s only 6:58.’ Sure enough, the plane landed as we were talking.”
Snowden said that one of the most memorable experiences of working with Bowen was assisting him in his capacity as a regent of the Smithsonian Institution. Bowen led a search committee for the head of the institution, and all of the work was conducted in complete secrecy.
Snowden said she traveled frequently to Washington, D.C., during that time, participating in meetings at venues including the Supreme Court building (Chief Justice Warren Burger was ex-officio chair of the board of regents). She also enjoyed her contact with some of the other regents, including Anne Armstrong, former U.S. ambassador to Great Britain, and Murray Gell-Mann, a Nobel laureate in physics.
With Shapiro, Snowden assisted on his work as chair of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission. Following the cloning of Dolly the sheep in February 1997, President Bill Clinton asked the commission to produce a report in 90 days on the legal and ethical issues associated with the use of this technology. Snowden remembers the excitement — and stress — of helping out with that assignment.
When Shapiro decided to retire from the presidency in 2001, Snowden seriously considered leaving the University too. But when she found out the search committee’s choice, she had a change of heart.
“I didn’t know Shirley well, but I knew her well enough that I really liked her,” Snowden said. “I wanted to do whatever I could to make her presidency a success. She was someone who didn’t have a lot of administrative experience. With Harold, I thought I could be useful because he was new to the institution. With Shirley, I thought I could be helpful because she was new to the whole administrative role.”
Tilghman, a member of the molecular biology faculty, had heard rumors that Snowden might retire. She immediately set about convincing her to remain at Princeton.
“Literally the first thing I did when I knew that I was going to be chosen is I went to see Marcia and begged her to stay,” Tilghman said. “The fact that I was able to work with her for four and a half years has just been a bonus. I can’t even imagine what it would have been like starting out without Marcia. She is one of the most important reasons for any success that I’ve had.”
Juggling the job
Robert Durkee, vice president and secretary, has worked with Snowden since he joined the administration in 1972. “The president’s office receives a very high volume of mail, phone calls, e-mail, hand-delivered materials of various kinds,” he said, “and Marcia somehow manages to keep track of where everything goes, what still needs to be answered or followed up.”
“This is like a firehouse,” Tilghman added. “It’s unrelenting, it happens day in and day out. It takes someone of just enormous judgment to be able to juggle all these requests.”
Snowden’s long history in the position, coupled with her thoughtful approach to problem-solving, have made her a valuable asset to the University.
“People approach the president’s office for all kinds of things, from the most important to the most trivial,” Shapiro said. “She had a way of making them all feel good about why they were there — regardless of whether this was a small issue or a big issue, she knew it was important to them.”
Tilghman credits Snowden’s “institutional memory” with helping her through many situations.
“She has been here for so long in a position that is a nexus, where she sees things from every angle,” she said. “Losing that memory will be a huge blow to us all. She remembers that 12 years ago this person was disappointed in some way by a University decision. The fact that I know that when I go to speak to that person is very helpful. You can’t keep files with that kind of information.”
Snowden’s perspective on issues has been especially important when it comes to difficult matters. “She always has an extraordinary intuition about people and about how you might deal with controversial or complicated issues,” Shapiro said. “She sat in on all my important meetings every week and when we left the meeting, she always had additional insights.”
Tilghman said, “I think of her very much as an adviser. When there’s something really thorny happening, I look to Marcia for advice on how to think about it. She is extraordinarily wise.”
Tilghman said she also truly appreciates Snowden’s highly developed writing skills. “I often say she writes like an angel,” she said. “Because she drafts a lot of the correspondence, I get credit for a lot of her wonderful work.”
Snowden is legendary for her dedication to the University and for her willingness to take on assignments not necessarily in her job description.
Goheen noted the special attention that Snowden gives the presidents emeriti. “I would like to record appreciation for an otherwise unrecognized and extracurricular duty that Marcia has patiently shouldered in the subsequent years — namely, care of the minor needs of the former presidents as they relate to the University — for example, such things as parking permits and good tickets for athletic events,” he said. “[These are] matters of no great moment but increasingly important as one’s mobility declines.”
Durkee cited her “deep and insightful understanding of the University’s core values and its history and a work ethic that brings her into the office early, keeps her here late and frequently imposes on her weekends.”
One weekend in 1980, Snowden was asked by Bowen on very short notice to be part of a delegation that traveled to the University of Riyadh in Saudi Arabia to negotiate the terms of a $5 million gift from the Saudi royal family to support the life sciences at Princeton. “We left on a Friday night and were back in the office on Monday morning,” Snowden said.
Time to play
Over the years, Snowden has had the opportunity to observe some significant changes at Princeton and to meet some notable people on the campus.
She lists the implementation of co-education, the changing face of the campus and the influence of technology — especially e-mail — as key areas for transformation.
She mentions getting to have breakfast with writer Eudora Welty and dinners with author Robertson Davies and dancer/choreographer Judith Jamison. But she shows the most enthusiasm when she recalls meeting Mickey Raphael, who is Willie Nelson’s longtime harmonica player.
In fact, it’s not all the luminaries whom Snowden remembers most fondly from her years in Nassau Hall. It’s the generations of Princetonians.
“One of the joys of the job has been maintaining friendships with people I knew when they were students here — seeing them go on to interesting/influential careers and positions — and then being able to befriend some of their children as they went through Princeton,” she said.
After 41 years at the University, Snowden said that her decision to retire this year was based in part on her desire to try something else.
“I think if I’m going to do anything besides work in Nassau Hall, it has to be now while I still have a little energy and a few wits about me,” she said. “I’ve awarded myself a sabbatical where I’m going to figure out what I’m going to do next.”
But first, she’s going to take some time to enjoy her hobbies. An avid hiker, Snowden regularly takes trips on her own and with a group organized through the Smithsonian Institution to mountainous areas in the United States and abroad. She recently moved to a house in Lawrenceville, and may try to do some gardening there.
But for now her schedule is wide open — and that appeals to her.
“I’m going to explore volunteering, read a great deal more, deal with some deferred maintenance of my person, my friendships and my house, expand my repertoire in the kitchen beyond six things I can make in 20 minutes, play tennis at 10 o’clock in the morning,” she said, “I’m going to audit classes and go to 4:30 lectures.
“Princeton is a big playground and I haven’t had time to play!”
Looking back over her career stretching from secretary to key presidential adviser at Princeton, Snowden is hard-pressed to come up with the secret to her longevity.
Bowen offered this insight: “She understood how important it was to treat everyone the same — to treat everyone nicely. Marcia was great at insisting on celebrating our complementary skills and never presuming that there was an unnecessary hierarchy that someone had to obey. Each of us did what each could do, and the results of her labors were far more consequential than almost anyone outside the president’s office could appreciate.
“To say that she will be missed is the understatement of all understatements!”