Bill Sniffin: I Am The Pater Familias – But How Did I Get Here?

Columnist Bill Sniffin writes: “Family legend has it that my grandpa rode into town on his motorcycle and swept Allie off her feet. They defied old Irish family traditions, drove off, and got married. That event was critical to me ultimately being here.”

Bill Sniffin

June 15, 20245 min read

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(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Poor George Clooney was lamenting that “Doggone it, I am the Pater Familias, why has my family abandoned me?” He was playing the role of Everett in the movie “O Brother Where Art Thou,” which is just about the funniest movie ever made. Please watch it.

In the movie, Everett just got out of prison in the depression years and was tracking down his ex-wife Holly Hunter and his four daughters. She had divorced him and had taken up with a new man, his kids called “her suitor.” They also chimed in that the new man was “bona fide,” which apparently Everett no longer was.

And I like to think that in my old age I have finally become “bona fide,” which means The Real Thing. It is a good feeling.

Like many million men around America, I have embraced that title of Pater Familias, which means “Father of the Family.”  Especially on this weekend. 

It is a title of which I am very proud. I earned that almost six decades ago when our oldest daughter Alicia was born. She arrived nine months and a week after Nancy and I were married, which had many of the old spinsters watching us carefully.

Alicia was followed by Shelli, Amber, and then Michael. I am delighted with these middle-aged adults and the 13 grandchildren that they brought into the world. I am known as Grandpa, Poppop, and Papa to them. I even have POPOP on the license plate of my 22-year old convertible.

I want to salute Jerry Johnson, Craig Hollins, Denny Haulman, and Michael Sniffin on this weekend, which is their special time, too. They are outstanding dads. 

Also, grandsons-in-law Taylor Barnett and Peter Blank.

Sunday Is A Big Day 

Sunday will be the 57th time I get to celebrate Father’s Day, which is very special to me.

Sunday is the day to honor fathers and I am reminded of my own dear old dad. He died 24 years ago at the age of 81. He sure taught me a wonderful work ethic. He also was my role model as an ideal Pater Familias.

We grew up in rugged Iowa country and my dad always thought he was crazy not to have been a farmer, what with nine sons. I was thrilled we were not sodbusters. Farms just never did anything for me. Now ranches are another story, but I digress.

The word “gumption” comes to mind when I think of my dad. He drove a gas truck and owned a couple of gas stations. I loved working at the stations and spent all my time there. Dad insisted that we give incredible customer service, which meant pumping their gas, washing their windshields, checking their oil, and checking out their tires.

I did it with a smile on my face. After all, I could have been off working on a farm shoveling pig dung. No thanks. I was happy servicing cars, fixing flat tires, and pumping gas.

With such a large family, my parents worked especially hard and that work ethic was passed down to us. While I was in high school, my dad drove the gas truck, ran his gas stations, drove a school bus both mornings and evenings, and sold insurance on the weekends and at night. He was busy.

My dad was an Irishman with a twinkle in his eye. He loved humor and was a dedicated Democrat. He was a hard drinker but gave up alcohol for 30 years while he raised his big family. 

We lived in a tiny town called Wadena, which was named after the much-larger Wadena, MN. Both were named after a famous Indian chief.

It was in a part of Iowa that most folks never see – it is incredibly hilly with big canyons and deep hollows. It is part of a scar across a three-state area called the Driftless Area. These areas escaped much of the glacier patterns, which flattened much of the Midwest. It is an area full of caves, underground streams, waterfalls, and fractured bedrock.

I always tell people that I grew up in a place that is more hilly than Lander Valley – that is until you consider our actual mountains.

Its population was 316 when I lived there and our big extended family (Sniffin’s and Flanagan’s) consisted of 10 percent of the entire population.   

We lived across the street from my grandparents, Charles and Alice Sniffin.  She came from a family of Irish spinsters who lived high up in the hills above town with her four single sisters and two bachelor brothers.

The Motorcyclist And The Spinster

Have you ever wondered about those little quirks of fate where people and events converged, resulting in your creation?

Family legend has it that my grandpa rode into town on his motorcycle and swept Allie off her feet. They defied old Irish family traditions and got married. That event was critical to me ultimately being here.

That was the first of two lifetime events that occurred over the decades that caused me and my siblings to come into being.

I was telling these stories at my mom’s funeral a few years ago.

The second event occurred when my dad broke his wrist when he fell out of jeep at an Army base in Louisiana. He could not join his unit on its way to Europe. Many of his best buddies died in the Battle of the Bulge.

Because of my dad’s gas station experience, he spent the rest of the war working for a unit that kept trucks running during World War II.  He was based in Iran most of his service time and went around the world twice. Although he was proud of his service, he called his war time: “A million-dollar experience that I would not give a quarter to do all over again.”

I miss him. A lot.

So, have a great time to all those bona fide guys who qualify as Pater Familias this weekend!

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Bill Sniffin

Wyoming Life Columnist

Columnist, author, and journalist Bill Sniffin writes about Wyoming life on Cowboy State Daily -- the state's most-read news publication.