[ed. note - by request of Florida reader MZ, today's moth-eaten satire special is this tacky 1999 celeb profile I did for CNSNews.]
La Crosse, WI - Stifling tears, a grieving nation said goodbye yesterday to Larry M. Snitker, Jr., scion of the Snitker welding supply dynasty of southwestern Wisconsin. "Our prince has left," said emotion-choked ABC News anchorman Peter Jennings, clutching CBS rival Dan Rather for support. "All hope is gone, all hope is gone."
In a somber ceremony broadcast live on all major networks as well as CNN, MSNBC, CNBC and Fox News, an honor guard of 48 U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds and Navy Blue Angels flew tight-formation acrobatics overhead as Snitker's ashes were interred at his beloved Play-Mor Lanes bowling alley in La Crosse. Presidential spokesman Joe Lockhart defended the estimated $8.5 million expense of the aerial salute, noting that "Hey, this was Larry Snitker, Jr."
16 Pounds of Tragedy
It was the closing chapter of the latest tragedy to befall the star-crossed Snitker family. Disaster struck again last Tuesday, when Snitker, 34, was "bowling a couple of extra lines" after his normal Tuesday night Elks Club League play at Play-Mor Lanes, according to family spokesman Vern Hunsaker. Joining Snitker for the impromptu keggling was his wife Brenda.
"LMS Jr. and Brenda often stayed late to close down the bowling alley on Tuesday," said Hunsaker. "It's a fun way to relax, to take their minds off the incredible stress of being a La Crosse welding supply celebrity."
During the seventh frame, Snitker apparently became disoriented when Play-Mor's antiquated AMF B-64 ball-return mechanism failed. "According to his scorecard, he was carrying a 153 into the seventh, riding a strike," said John Feldman, head of the 60-agent FBI task force that investigated the incident. "He was hot and had a chance of breaking his personal best of 189. He left an easy 5-7 combination with his first roll, and in the excitement, had a major loss of judgment when he didn't get his ball back."
Apparently concerned with the fate of his bowling ball and the loss of his 'hot hand,' Snitker inserted his head in the ball return to investigate. When he was unable to locate the swirl blue $89 Dick Weber Diamond Pro 16 model ball, he apparently convinced wife Brenda to search the adjacent ball return chute. When the machine creaked to life, it was too late. Their heads lodged firmly in the return chutes, Snitker and his wife waited helplessly for the certain death that would accompany the next ball.
"Those last few moments must have been terrifying," said bereaved New York Times columnist Liz Smith. Smith, a long-time Snitker watcher who has covered the family since 1967, said that in the end, the couple turned to each other for comfort.
"When their lifeless bodies were found the next morning, they were holding hands peacefully," said Smith, pausing for a moment to collect herself. "In their other hands, they each were bravely holding an unfinished can of Old Style beer and a burnt Doral regular 100. And Larry and Brenda were wearing their matching red polyester 'Tri-County Welding Supply Pin Killers' bowling shirts. It was a romantic scene for the ages."
When advisors informed him of the tragedy on Wednesday, President Clinton dispatched an emergency team of federal grief counselors to this small Wisconsin city to help local residents cope with the psychological trauma. In addition, Defense Secretary William Cohen ordered in a squadron of Navy SEAL demolition experts to La Crosse to help with the recovery of the victims' bodies.
News of the tragedy struck the citizens of this picturesque Midwestern beer-and-cheese resort like a thunderbolt. "Oh my God, not again," said Linda Gunderson, 46, a Snitker family friend. "I better get to work on a nice hot dish for that funeral."
"I only pray that the Snitker family makes it through this latest loss," added Gunderson. "I also pray that Marge Hokesma doesn't bring that horrible green bean and onion casserole to the wake, like last time."
Little Monarchy on the Prairie
Inevitably, the death of LMS Jr. rekindled talk of the "Snitker Curse" that has haunted three generations the meteoric La Crosse clan. Ironically, LMS Jr. had deliberately tried to distance himself from the dynasty founded by his late grandfather, Elmer Snitker. A mix of tragedy and triumph, the story of the welding Snitkers reads like a potboiler novel.
In 1927, young Rhinelander, Wisconsin blacksmith Elmer Snitker established Tri-County Machine Supply in La Crosse. Like countless others, 'Papa Elmer' harbored fantasies of conquering the southwest Wisconsin brace bit and die stamp distribution market, but the Great Depression nearly ruined him.
"In desperation, in 1934 he took a fling at the crazy new world of welding supply distribution," explained Kurt Zellwiger, the Snitker-Chaired Professor of Welding at La Crosse Community Vo-Tech College. "That wild bet paid off, and a dynasty was born."
The newly re-christened 'Tri-County Welding Supply' proved to be a bonanza for the Snitker family patriarch, as money began pouring in - first by the hundreds, then literally by the multi-hundreds of dollars. Flush with cash and looking to secure his family's destiny, the hard-charging progenitor began grooming his young sons to grip the reins of his welding supply empire.
It was a difficult task. Snitker's sons - Bob, Larry, Wayne and Norm - developed a reputation as southwest Wisconsin's most notorious playboys. "Unlike their father, the boys grew up amid all the luxury and decadence of the welding supply biz," said Zellwiger. "At a young age, they each became fixtures on the La Crosse party circuit. Wherever you found cheese curds, beer, polka music or exotic plump girls from Iowa or Minnesota, you'd be sure to spot a Snitker."
According to Zellwiger, Elmer Snitker only indulged his sons' knavish behavior. "It was a case of misplaced priorities," he explained. "He was going to make his sons kings, no matter the cost. The boys knew he would pull strings to get them enrolled in La Crosse Vo-Tech, and squelch all the embarrassing cow-tipping scandals from the newspapers."
In 1954, Elmer ceded control of his welding empire to eldest son Bob, then 28. It was a reign that would last less than two years, as the dashing young Wisconsin playboy would have his life snuffed out by a salmonella-infected bratwurst. "It was a shock," said Zellwiger. "One minute, he was a vital young man, washing down a bratwurst with a Schlitz - the next minute, dead. I guess you never know if that sausage has your name on it."
It was the first in a seemingly unending series of tragedies that would befall the Snitkers over the next five decades. Still grieving for his eldest son, but unable to trust his empire to his other offspring, Elmer Snitker returned to the helm of Tri-County. In 1965, he once again retired, handing over control to Larry Snitker, Sr., then 30.
"Despite all of his wild supper club and tavern carousing, Elmer decided it was time for LMS," said Zellwiger. "Elmer had helped build up Larry's reputation in the Japanese ice fishing incident."
The famous January 1961 incident was the first time most Americans had heard of Larry Snitker. Visiting La Crosse for a cheese seminar, a group of Japanese businessmen had become inebriated at a local bar. Hijacking several snowmobiles, they caromed across frozen Lake Kiota, severing an ice fishing shelter containing several drunken men, including Larry Snitker. He labored for over two hours to slide his companions to safety, before joining the Japanese businessmen for a nightcap at Duegger's Tap.
His gritty bravery earned LMS the praise of fellow La Crossians, and the story was the subject of the 1973 film classic 'Ice House 403' starring Warren Beatty. It also earned him a column in the La Crosse Pioneer-Press. 'Profiles in Welding' appeared on alternate Wednesdays from 1964-1965, and Snitker received the prestigious Golden Solder award from the North Central Welding Writers Association. Some suggested the column was actually ghostwritten by Pioneer-Press editor Herb Felker.
Handsome, suave and a solid 165 bowler, Larry Snitker was initially reluctant to assume his filial duties as leader of Tri-County Welding Supply. His sophisticated young wife, Joyce, heiress to the Janke Dairy Equipment dynasty of Eau Claire and an accomplished bowler in her own right, longed for a life away from the blinding oxyacetylene glare of Wisconsin welding society.
Yet, the young couple and their children soon caught the imagination of southwest Wisconsin, the nation and the world. In 1966, LMS traveled to Prairie du Chien to open a branch office, and received wild cheers when he spoke the immortal words, "Oh yeah, I'm a Prairie du Chiener, you betcha."
The shining age of Weldalot was soon shaken by tragedy. At the famous 1966 'Ice Bowl' NFL championship game between the Dallas Cowboys and his beloved Green Bay Packers, an elated Larry Snitker rushed upon the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field after Packer QB Bart Starr scored the winning touchdown. In a horrifying scene captured in slow motion by NFL Films, Snitker was killed instantly by a falling icicle from the north end zone goalpost.
Even today, most Americans can tell you where they were at the exact moment of the tragedy. Many believe a conspiracy was behind the event, and reject the "single icicle theory" postulated in the Lombardi Commission Report. To this day, members of the Snitker family will not visit Dallas.
A heartbroken nation grieved and the funeral was carried to a worldwide television audience. Many were reduced to tears by the pictures of little 3-year Larry Snitker Jr. saluting his father's passing casket while wearing a tiny welding helmet and gloves.
In 1974, tragedy struck again with the passing of family patriarch Elmer Snitker and unexpected death of Wayne, who was felled by an exploding microwave while heating up a bean burrito at Quik Mart. The crown then passed to Elmer's surviving son, Norm, who has remained remarkably impervious to the tragedies that plagued his brothers - despite 17 DUI convictions and three hospital stays for flatulence-igniting injuries.
While many Snitker historians have faulted Elmer Snitker for indulging his sons while neglecting his daughters, Harvard Snitker scholar Michael Beschloss said it was not a case of patriarchal sexism.
"The Snitker girls, Shirley and Violet, had their own problems with men," said Beschloss, author of 'Unbroken Seam: The Triumph of the Welding Snitkers, 1927-1994.' "Because of their high station in La Crosse society, they were forever meeting touring pro bowlers and matinee idols from the community theater. It was hard for them not to get star-struck."
The family's wealth and storage shed was an attraction for many rogue suitors, as the Snitker girls soon found out. Both wed as teenagers - Shirley to snowmobile pro Stan Hoff, and Violet to Stu Ingvall, ultra-suave member of La Crosse's notorious bait shop 'Rat Pack.'
Messy divorces ensued, the details of which were covered in excruciating detail by the nation's supermarket tabloids. Humiliated, Violet and Shirley shrank from public view, and now reportedly spend their time plying the video bingo machines at area Indian casinos.
For the third generation of Snitkers, fate has been no less unkind. In 1983, cousins Mike Snitker and Greg Snitker Ingvall were expelled from La Crosse Vo-Tech for cheating on a tractor repair final. Sixteen-year old Julie Snitker was arrested at a Madison mall in 1984 for shoplifting several size XXXXL swim dresses from Lane Bryant.
In 1991, Kevin Snitker was arrested for public urination during a high-school wrestling tournament. Last year during a routine sweep of the 3rd Avenue car-cruising strip, La Crosse police arrested seven Snitker cousins for exposing their buttocks through the window of a rusty, jacked-up 1981 Camaro. News of the Snitker 'Moongate' scandal again provided fodder for the world's scandal sheets, along with memorable photographs.
"You have to ask yourself, must tragedy always plague this family - is it somehow written in the stars?" wondered Beschloff.
Unlike his cousins, LMS Jr. grew up far from the La Crosse limelight. After her husband's death, Joyce Snitker remarried Greek restaurant magnate Gus Philopopolous, and despite the constant hounding by paparazzi, Larry Jr. was raised in the relative serenity of far-off Beloit. By all accounts a gracious and humble young man, LMS Jr. received bowling and ice fishing instruction from private tutors.
After his graduation from Janesville Diesel Academy in 1987, Larry Jr. once again made international headlines when he failed to pass the Wisconsin state truck mechanic exam several times. Despite the embarrassment, he persevered and, in 1992, received his license along with an appointment at the prestigious Fond du Lac Truck Haven truck stop. It was there he met Brenda Aarhuis, a stunning 185-pound beauty who worked the night shift as a cashier.
A near-circus atmosphere attended their 1994 wedding, as thousands of paparazzi and Snitker devotees were kept at bay by Wisconsin state police. "It was the closest thing to a royal wedding since Charles and Diana," said Cindy Adams, gossip columnist for the New York Post. "The people wanted any kind of information - what tint was the groom's shirt ruffles, what polkas were played, what kind of donuts were served at the reception. 'Hard Copy' even rented a helicopter to stake out their honeymoon motor lodge in the Wisconsin Dells."
Tiring of the glamorous world of Fond du Lac big rig repair, Larry Snitker returned to La Crosse in 1995 to start a new life as a media mogul. His new publication, 'The La Crosse Thrifty Saver,' drew immediate praise for its penetrating coverage of area rummage sales and valuable coupons. "Sure, some critics dismissed it as fluff, but the Thrifty Saver was targeting the hip, cynical, younger bargain seeker. TS got these people genuinely exited about used box springs and lawn sprinklers," said Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz.
With his untimely death last week, the fairy tale came to a crushing end. Some members of Congress called for sanctions against AMF for wrongful death, while others hinted of a five-figure lawsuit against Play-Mor Lanes. Unfortunately, the incident seemed to be occasion for Internet 'Snitker haters' to rear their heads. By Friday, the notorious SnitkersSuck.com web site was carrying gruesome autopsy photos of LMS Jr., his lifeless forehead embossed with a reversed Brunswick logo.
The funeral services seemed to render such background controversy moot. A morose parade of world leaders, including President Clinton, descended upon La Crosse yesterday to pay respects, their private jets clogging the tarmac at Southwest Wisconsin Regional Airport. The town's hotels were overflowing with media personalities, and a legion of satellite trucks assembled to broadcast the somber proceedings to a grieving world.
"We have lost our prince," said Prince Charles of Great Britain in a moving eulogy. His sentiments were echoed by his father Prince Philip, brother Prince Andrew, and his sons, Prince Harry and Prince William. Also noting the loss of a prince were Prince Ranier and Prince Albert of Monaco, Prince Ibn Al-Sultan of Saudi Arabia, The Artist Formerly Known as Prince, Broadway impresario Harold Prince, and Hollywood Prince Freddy Prinz, Jr.
"I remember the time that Larry and I met at Camp David," reminisced Clinton. "I remember it well. He told me, 'please Mr. President, do what ever you need to stay in complete, unopposed, absolute political power.' When I get over my deep grief, I pledge that I will honor this fine young man's dying request."
Perhaps the most moving eulogy of the day came from Norm Snitker, Larry's uncle. "Little Lar had everything," he said. "A beauuuutiful wipe - ha ha, I mean wife - and a reaaal fine low mileage Neon. Everything but that dirty damn bowling ball."
"How 'bout another drink, honey?" asked Norm Snitker, shaking his cocktail glass at the startled organist before stumbling from the podium.
As a lone accordion played a mournful version of 'The Beer Barrel Polka,' the cremated remains of Larry Snitker Jr. were placed inside a pearl black Ebonite Alley Master 300 ball. Choking back tears, PBA champion Joe Firpo flung the ball down Play-Mor's alley 3.
After picking up the 8-10 combination for a spare, Larry Melvin Snitker, Jr. had reached his final resting place.
A wave of emotion engulfed the assembled media, as reporters desperately clung together for support. "We went to the same parties," sobbed Diane Sawyer of ABC News, hugging the shoulder of NBC's Jane Pauley. "The annual Park Avenue pig roast and kegger will never be the same."
His lower lip quivering, CNN's Bernard Shaw vowed to continue his network's 24-hour Snitker Crisis special "until the advertisers begin to complain. LMS would have wanted it that way."
Still, some criticized the non-stop media attention to the Snitker's latest tragedy. "For God's sake, can't the media leave this poor, bereaved family alone?" asked alleged historian Doris Kearns Goodwin of Harvard. "But, if the media can't leave them alone, I will provide fascinating, insightful commentary at reasonable rates."
Ceremonies for Brenda Aarhuis Snitker are pending location of her body. "Somehow, it got misplaced in all the excitement," said family spokesman Vern Hunsaker.
Viewing the ceremony around the world, a stunned human race was given pause by the latest Snitker tragedy. "Whenever I let my malnourishment, illiteracy or leprosy get me down, I just stop and think about those unfortunate Snitkers," said Subhash Sharma, a Calcutta street beggar.
At a candlelight vigil outside a New York cheese shop, Darcy Wilson, 39, agreed. "This tragedy had touched me, as it has all Americans," she said, clutching others in an unscripted show of group emotion.
"We want to show our support of the Snitkers, and all that they stand for, in a tangible way," explained fellow mourner Fred Jervik, 32. "That's why we watch the nonstop coverage and buy the commemorative plates and the t-shirts."
The crowd of mourners is also uniformly enthusiastic about tomorrow's release of Elton John's commemorative "Goodbye Yellow Wood Road."
Now that the most noteworthy and cutest Snitker has passed on, some in the crowd are concerned about their own Snitker-less futures.
"It's really a frightening prospect," said Manhattanite Kristin Baker. "I might be forced to get a life."