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‘A big loss to our community': Texas chief dies of cancer at 58

Chief Shawn Snider guided Edinburg Fire in its continuing transition from a fully volunteer department to a hybrid of paid and volunteer firefighters


Photo/Texas Fire Chiefs Association

By Dina Arévalo
The Monitor

EDINBURG, Texas — A man led by faith. A man who embodied the philosophy of servant leadership.

A man who left a generation of leaders walking in his footsteps as they forge paths of their own in firehouses across the region.

A man supported by a family he loved dearly, and who sacrificed greatly by sharing him with the rest of us — even in his final moments.

This is the way firefighters from across the Rio Grande Valley remembered Edinburg Fire Chief Shawn Snider just one day after his death.

Snider died at 10:01 p.m. Monday after a yearslong battle with cancer. He was 58 years old.

“It’s just a big loss to our community. His leadership, what he meant to our city. I think he defines who the city is in terms of his selfless commitment to our community,” Edinburg Mayor Ramiro Garza Jr. said while standing outside the city’s central fire station Tuesday morning.

Nearby, Chief Snider’s department-issued Chevy Silverado heavy duty truck, its fire engine red paint gleaming, lay adorned with the violet and black bunting of mourning.

Snider dedicated his entire professional life to firefighting.

He got his start as a volunteer with the Alamo Fire Department even before he turned 18 years old.

But Snider was most well-known for his tenure in Edinburg.

He joined the Edinburg Fire Department as an assistant fire marshal in 1991 under then-Chief Johnny George Economedes.

But Snider only agreed to join on one condition, according to Deputy Chief Ubaldo “Balde” Perez — that he still be allowed to respond to fires. Perez was himself new to the department, having joined up just one year before Snider came aboard.

At the time, Edinburg’s firefighters were all volunteers. But even then, Snider commanded authority. When Economedes died, Snider was the natural fit to replace him, Perez said.

“Chief (Snider) was a leader from the day he started. There was no doubt,” Perez said.

Snider took the helm as Edinburg fire chief in 1999 and led the department for nearly 24 years.

Over that span of time, he guided the department in its continuing transition from fully volunteer line firefighters to a hybrid system of paid and volunteer firefighters.

Today, the department has 80 paid firefighters and 40 volunteers.

It was Snider’s wish to remain chief until the end, according to McAllen interim Fire Chief Juan Angel Gloria.

“He would be the Edinburg fire chief until they closed the casket,” Gloria said Tuesday. “He could have retired a long time ago, but he wouldn’t have had it any other way.”

Gloria is one of a host of people who have made their careers in the fire service — often rising to leadership ranks — because of Chief Snider.

Gloria recalls being a volunteer at the Hidalgo Fire Department when he first met Snider at an industry function in 1996. That meeting would later prove pivotal.

“A couple of years later, I ended up finding my way — moving over — to the city of Edinburg,” Gloria said.

Gloria saw firsthand how Snider took the reins after Chief Economedes’ death and not only filled that chief’s shoes, but “created his own.”

“He was, for the time, a visionary,” Gloria said.

Another one of Snider’s proteges, Mission Deputy Fire Chief Christopher Navarette, agreed.

Navarette spoke of how Snider revolutionized firefighting in the Valley by becoming the region’s staunchest advocate for training.

Through his efforts, Snider was able to bring state-of-the-art firefighter training down not only for Edinburg firefighters, but for any fire personnel in the region.

“All the area departments would come and descend upon Edinburg in the spring of every year to get training,” Navarette said.

“Shawn’s leadership... he made it happen,” he added.

Navarette has been a firefighter for two decades. But he never would have made a career of it had it not been for the persuasive leadership of Shawn Snider.

“I never wanted to be a firefighter, to be honest with you. That wasn’t a goal of mine growing up,” Navarette, an Edinburg native, said.

Instead, he signed up as a volunteer while attending the University of Texas-Pan American, a legacy institution of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, with the sole intention of building up his resume.

Six months later, however, he had dropped out of college to pursue firefighting full-time.

“That was just an environment that only Shawn could provide,” Navarette said.

Everyone who spoke of Snider on Tuesday spoke of his singular, extraordinary presence.

Navarette explained it as recognizing Snider as a leader the moment you saw him.

“Shawn, he was one of the last few chiefs that just had this command presence. Shawn just had this persona that he walked into a room and, without saying a word, you felt his presence,” Navarette said.

For Perez, who served 32 years with Snider, the chief was deceptively intimidating at first glance.

“If you didn’t know him and you saw him, you’d be like, ‘OK, no... he looks mean. He looks serious,’” Perez said.

“But the moment you meet him, truly meet him ... he is one of the greatest individuals I have ever met. The most compassionate. The most understanding. The most willing to listen. And the most willing to advise and try to help you...” he added.

And that was perhaps Snider’s greatest attribute — his service as a mentor to so many.

Gloria, the McAllen chief, described Snider as one of the few people that other firefighters knew they could reach out to for help, no matter what.

“He was always one of those handful of people that you would always call first,” Gloria said.

It’s a reliability and a commitment to service that Snider’s pupils have carried with them as they’ve risen the ranks in turn.

Navarette recalled one instance where that was perfectly illustrated — when local leaders had gathered to discuss security protocols for the annual McAllen Holiday Parade.

” McAllen called all the team leaders for a meeting ... and all the team leaders from all the different Valley HAZMAT teams were all at one point volunteers in Edinburg,” Navarette said.

“That’s his legacy,” he added a moment later.

Another of Snider’s legacies was in exemplifying service through sacrifice — influenced by his devotion to his Catholic faith.

“That’s his willingness to dedicate himself to God and to do what God would do, which is take care of others,” Perez, the Edinburg deputy chief, said.

But his third greatest devotion was to his family — to his wife of nearly 31 years, Edna, and their daughter, Sarah.

As he reminisced about his friendship with Snider, Chief Gloria paused to recognize the sacrifices that Snider’s family also made throughout his career, even in his final days.

“There is something also there to recognize — (it) is the sacrifice of (his) wife and his daughter, of lending him to us for a longer period of time,” Gloria said, explaining that Snider’s family had graciously made space for his colleagues to tell him goodbye.

“That’s a hard thing to do,” he said.

Funeral arrangements have yet to be announced.


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