Barbara Sniffen: Fighter, Mentor, Friend

by Tony Palmeri

November 4, 2003

Barbara Sniffen, UW Oshkosh Professor Emeritus of History and passionate TAUWP advocate, died in her sleep last Thursday night while attending the Wisconsin Federation of Teachers Convention. "Shock" does not even begin to describe the feelings of everyone who knew and loved Barbara. Though we knew she suffered from a variety of ailments including a bout with cancer, her energy and enthusiasm always made it difficult to imagine that she might someday leave us. I know I speak for all TAUWP members in offering the deepest condolences to Barbara's husband, son, and the rest of her family and friends.

I suspect my history with Barbara Sniffen matches that of many others: I stood in awe of Barbara the fighter, sought guidance from Barbara the mentor, and was comforted by the warmth of Barbara the friend.

There will never be another fighter like Barbara Sniffen on the UW Oshkosh campus. When I first arrived at the campus in 1989, like most faculty recently out of graduate school I was naive about the realities of university power and politics. I had great faith and belief in the idea that the American university really was a place where students, faculty, staff, and administrators stood united in the search for truth. Barbara Sniffen understood, more keenly than most, that administrative power trips, unfair workplace rules, and double standards blocked the truth search. There's a famous quote by the great African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass that always reminds me of Barbara every time I hear it. That quote says, "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will." Most people who met Barbara were shocked that this tiny, outwardly reserved looking older woman could be so brazen and forceful. I think Mark Twain explained it best, "It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog."

Two short stories, both from the last two months of Barbara's life, I think illustrate her fighting spirit. A little over a month ago I returned to my office after teaching one morning and saw a message on my telephone answering machine. It was from Barbara, saying there was something "urgent" she wanted to tell me. Between meeting with students and doing assorted other odds and ends, I did not return her call. When I got home that evening, there was a message on my home answering machine from Barbara: "Tony, you really do have to call me. This is extremely important." I called her early the next morning, and what she wanted to tell me was that Kay Neal (who followed me as chair of the department of communication) had finally joined TAUWP. You see, Barbara had been recruiting Kay for years and years and years to join the organization. Barbara aggressively recruited faculty to join the organization, and she refused to accept "NO" from anyone. When a faculty or staff member finally joined, Barbara considered it a great moral victory and a significant stride toward attaining justice for all members of the campus community. I used to laugh at how seriously Barbara took the whole issue of membership recruitment, at how she would religiously come to every campus opening day ceremony in September and place TAUWP membership cards in the hands of everyone who wanted one and especially in the hands of those who did NOT want one. Now I cry wondering how we will ever replace that exuberance and persistence that really is the lifeblood of any organization or community, be it a university community or any other.

Then just a few weeks ago the UW Board of Regents met on the UW Oshkosh campus. Our new Wisconsin Federation of Teachers TAUWP representative Kevin Kniffin (Barbara loved the fact that the WFT hired someone whose name was so similar to hers) and staff organizer Andrew Cantrell had been busy taping TAUWP signs on the doors of the Reeve Union building in which the Regents would be meeting. But Barbara went one step further: she placed the signs in the women's' rest rooms, an act that drew the ire of the Reeve Union management and the campus police. When Kevin, Andrew, and I broke the news to Barbara about the authorities' displeasure with this evil act of civil disobedience she had committed, she was just beaming. She was like an energetic teenager who had moved the minute hand on her parents' watches back so as to extend the curfew. Nothing gave her more pleasure than tweaking the establishment, even if it meant placing--gasp!--unauthorized flyers in their rest rooms

Barbara was always chastised, even by many of her friends, for being overly confrontational, exaggerating problems, and personalizing issues. Often I would say to these critics, "look, I don't always agree with Barbara's style of communicating, but on the other hand if I were taken hostage somewhere and allowed just one phone call, I'm pretty sure Barbara Sniffen is the person that I'd contact. She'd set the wheels in motion to get me released in ways that no mellow and non-confrontational diplomat ever could."

I think Barbara was amused by the criticisms aimed at her, and saw them as signs of the discomfort that most of us feel when someone urges us to confront power. She got a big kick, for example, at how some members of the university faculty would claim to throw her caustic "TAUWP Comments" newsletters right in the trash, yet they somehow were able to engage in point by point refutation of every claim in the Comment.

If there are angels in Heaven, I can see Barb right now organizing them to confront God about all the violence and misery on Earth. I can hear her telling them, "Look, there's all this talk about love and peace around here and yet the boss tolerates wars, natural disasters, hunger and disease. Let's demand that this Great Spirit start acting like one."

But Barb was not only a great fighter. She was a tremendous mentor and friend.

I believe the greatest gift a mentor can give to a mentee is the confidence to use their talents and abilities for a cause bigger than themselves. In my 14 years at UW Oshkosh, Barb Sniffen was one of only a handful of people who steered me away from the narrow careerist agenda that plagues so many people at a modern university. Barb kept reminding me that someone with my abilities was obligated to join the centuries old struggle for justice and human rights. She showed me the folly of trying to curry favor with people in power if they do not respect basic principles of democracy like due process and equal opportunity. She showed me the necessity of exposing those who abuse power and demanding accountability from them, even if that means great personal discomfort and sacrifice of many of the rewards available to people who remain silent in the face of injustice. In her personal example she showed me the truth of Margaret Mead's declaration to "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." Barbara Sniffen never let me forget that I could be that ONE thoughtful citizen who could change the world.

Ultimately, Barbara Sniffen was a friend. In her one sensed a deep love of humanity in general and a genuine care for everyone in her immediate environment. In Barbara's presence I always felt like I was around a modern version of Mother Jones, the great late 19th and early 20th century champion of the rights of children and the oppressed. Mother Jones told us to "pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living." Barbara told us the same thing, loud and clear.

I think the best way for us to pay tribute to Barbara Sniffen is to pledge to continue that fight. I only hope that in my fight I can display the passion and dignity that Barbara modeled for us so eloquently.