Don J. Snyder ’72 has enjoyed a long career as the author of 11 novels and books of nonfiction.
One of them, Fallen Angel, was turned into a movie starring Gary Sinise, with Snyder writing the screenplay. His latest novel, The Tin Nose Shop, explores the rehabilitation of soldiers who came home from World War I with horrific facial injuries. Published in London, it was recently chosen by the BBC Radio2 Book Club as a featured selection.
But Snyder is most proud of his work as founder of the Caddie School for Soldiers, which he established in Scotland in 2019 as a way to help veterans of modern wars recover from their physical and emotional wounds. The school also honors his father, who himself came home from World War II to face his own personal grief and loss.
The school helps soldiers work through their trauma by bringing them to the Duke’s course in St. Andrews, Scotland, to train to become caddies. The school hosts three sessions annually for veterans from the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.
They live together for a month and train on one of the world’s storied golf courses. By spending time engaged in physical activities with others who have experienced similar trauma, veterans are able to begin healing as a new band of brothers and find faith in themselves, Snyder said.
“It’s a chance for these soldiers to work in one of the most peaceful places on earth after having been in the most dangerous places on earth,” said Snyder, who lives in Scarborough, Maine, when he’s not running his school in Scotland. “Many of these soldiers believed they would be soldiers all their lives. Teaching them to be caddies gives them new purpose.”
The kinship of brotherhood
Snyder, now 72, began dreaming about the school after the death of his father, a veteran of World War II, in 2010. But the idea really took root as his father discussed the kinship of brotherhood that happens during wartime.
After returning home to Pennsylvania from the war in the Pacific, Snyder’s father married the love of his life, Peggy. Tragically, Peggy died 16 days after giving birth to twin sons. “He was shattered, and he spent that autumn sleeping on her grave. In the mornings, soldiers he had gone to war with would swing by the cemetery and take him to the coffee shop in town to try to help him talk through his grief,” Snyder said.
His father told him those soldiers saved his life.
Snyder wrote a book about his mother’s life and his parents’ love story, Of Time & Memory, published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2000. During his research, Snyder discovered that his mother, who was only 19 years old when she became pregnant, was told by her doctor that she would not likely survive childbirth.
Rather than save her own life, she carried her twins to term and asked her doctor to promise he would tell no one about her condition so that Snyder and his brother would not go through life feeling guilty they had caused her death, Snyder said.
Learning this, Snyder entered what he called “a dark period in my life.” He left Maine for St. Andrews, where he hoped to “walk off my sorrow.” He carried golf clubs 10 hours a day for 187 days of the season and discovered that each time he accompanied a golfer around a course he had the chance to disappear from his own story into the story of the golfer at his side.
“Gradually that feeling of being haunted lifted,” he said.
‘Walking with Jack’
The golf connection wasn’t random. Snyder’s son, Jack, was an excellent golfer growing up, and Snyder pledged to caddie for his son if he made it on a professional tour. When his son turned pro, Snyder carried his clubs—and wrote about the experience in the memoir Walking with Jack, published in 2013.
Later, when he began hearing about soldiers from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who were struggling to adapt to life at home, Snyder was confident that teaching them to become golf caddies would help them as it helped him.
Veterans who have completed the school said they are grateful to Snyder for creating new opportunities.
Sean Sutherland, a Special Forces soldier from Canada who deployed in Bosnia, Kosovo, East Africa, Iraq, and Afghanistan, went through the program, worked as a caddie last summer, and is now director of mentoring at the school. That means he interviews incoming veterans and is at each session with them, bringing six strangers together as a family.
He feels an enormous sense of responsibility to help these soldiers because he understands what they are going through. “Some of these guys are thinking, ‘Do I kill myself today or do I wait a few days?’ Those are the guys we want in the program,” said Sutherland, who has suffered through years of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Going to the caddie school, he found himself becoming more patient and calm. “My family likes me a lot more,” he said, praising Snyder for his friendship and commitment to helping him and others. “Don has never given up on his belief in me. Never. He has that capacity—he will be your friend until the end.”
Paul Bonney, a veteran from the United Kingdom who also worked in law enforcement in Northern Ireland, completed the program in March 2022 and now works as a full-time caddie. He called Snyder “the most giving, dedicated, hard-working person I’ve ever met. It’s his life ambition to get this school up and running. It’s almost like a legacy for him, except that it’s not,” Bonney said. “It’s just the right thing to be done, and he is doing it unselfishly. He has a love of caddying and a love and dedication to service personnel as well. He is headstrong and dedicated, and that is a good combination.”
Snyder attributes his interest in writing to his time at Colby, and specifically to the instruction and inspiration of his professors John Sweney, the NEH/Class of 1940 Distinguished Teaching Professor of Humanities, English, Emeritus, and Anthony Hunt. Both are still alive, and Snyder shares his manuscripts with them for feedback and input.
“They first awakened me to the power of words and how words can change people and maybe even change the world if you can find the right words and get them out there,” Snyder said. “It’s remarkable when you think I was 18 when I met them and I am 72 now and we are still in touch. I can close my eyes and still see them in the classroom. I cannot close my eyes and see myself as a young man, but I can see them.”
As successful as he has been as a writer, Snyder said it is his work with the Caddie School for Soldiers that motivates him these days. “I can see now that my long writing life—a life of mostly rejection and trying to keep believing in myself— was a perfect preparation for me to minister to these soldiers,” he said.
Planning for the Future
Snyder wants to raise $4 million to create an endowment to expand the school to serve more veterans. There are many veterans in the United States and across the world suffering from PTSD, and an average of 17 of them commit suicide every day, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“We need to go from three sessions a year to six, and that takes money. And that’s what we are working toward,” he said.
The Caddie School for Soldiers recently entered into a partnership with the Kohler Co., the Wisconsin company best known for making sinks and toilets. Kohler purchased a 10-bedroom home a short walk from the Old Course in St. Andrews to house the veteran-caddies. The Kohler Home For Soldiers is home to veterans who are training as caddies, their family members, widows of soldiers, and veterans who need a place to rest and heal.
Graduates have worked as caddies at courses all over the world, from Royal Liverpool, the Old Course, Royal Portrush, Cabot Cape Breton, Streamsong in Florida, Dallas National, and the Country Club in Brookline, Mass.
Snyder says his work with these veterans who find their way to the school fills him with gratitude and humility.
“You start out with a dream, and like most dreams, it’s completely unrealistic. It is other people who have made it real,” he said. “All I had was my dream. But one by one, other people stepped forward to make it real. Witnessing this healing and providing these soldiers with a new skill to earn a living doing meaningful work that bestows upon them the dignity they are entitled to has been the greatest privilege of my life.”
The Art Historian in the Auction House
Sandy Ma ’08 draws on her art history degree in a dynamic, global career at Phillips
Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Big Leagues
Jordan Nathan ’15 launched home goods darling Caraway in 2018
Thomas Rippon ’68 Makes $1 Million Gift to Colby Financial Aid
The entrepreneur and civic leader cites his long-term gratitude toward the College