La Crosse WI -- Slowly filing past a green-and-gold casket festooned with cheese curds, lottery tickets, and bouquets of 6-pack rings, the city of La Crosse bid a tearful farewell this morning to Norman V. "Norm" Snitker, 62. Long heralded as the "Lion of Leinenkugel" for his relentless fight for free beer and shots at local taverns and supper clubs, Snitker succumbed to an exploding liver Tuesday evening during a late model modified heat at La Crosse Speedway's $1 Jagermeister night.
"Norm left an amazing legacy, and an amazing bar tab," said mourner Les Schreindl, 59. "La Crosse won't see his likes again soon."
Like hundreds of other who came to pay their respects at First Presbyterian -- some traveling from as far as Menomonie, Pewaukee, Ashwebenon, and Waunawacamapepee -- Schreindl wiped a tear in remembrance of the fallen champion of universal alcohol rights. Many vowed to carry on his fight, but along with the heartfelt, staggering eulogies, there was a melancholy sense that the death of Norm Snitker marked the end of the Snitker welding supply dynasty that has for so long dominated public life in La Crosse County.
A Storied Life
Born on July 9, 1947 as the 7th child of legendary La Crosse welding supply impresario and kingmaker Elmer Snitker, Norman Snitker grew up amid the stately opulence afforded by his father's reported $15,000 fortune, bass boat, and palatial storage shed. By all accounts a precocious drinker, he took early advantage of his birthright and fully stocked basement liquor cabinet, earning the first of his 138 lifetime DUIs at age 11.
Although he grew up in privilege, Snitker insiders say that even at a young age Norm showed a deep empathy for those who were less fortunate.
"Norm would look at the other kids at school, and say, 'why don't they have access to the same fake IDs as me? Why must they remain sober?'" said classmate Glenn Hunsaker. "It became a crusade for him, and he became an activist. Every Friday night you'd see him at the Piggly Wiggly parking lot, making sure that every kid in La Crosse got the Pabst and Old Style that they so desperately needed."
Despite those early accomplishments, young Norm Snitker was often overshadowed by his glamorous and dashing older brothers, Stu, Larry and Wayne, whose tragic deaths transfixed southwest Wisconsin. He was only seven when eldest brother Stu was felled by a salmonella-infected bratwurst. By the time he was was an 18-year old GED student, eldest surviving brother Larry M. Snitker had already taken the helm of the family's Tri-County Welding Supply dynasty. The brief golden age of Weldalot came to a tragic end at the 1967 'Ice Bowl' game between the Green Bay Packers and the Dallas Cowboys, when a celebrating LMS was slain by a goalpost icicle. He was succeeded by Wayne, whose life abruptly ended in 1981 after his mullet became ensnared in the rollers of a QuikTrip weenie heater.
After the death of Wayne, a grief-stricken La Crosse awaited the appointment of Norm Snitker to the presidency of Tri-County Welding Supply, but some on its board questioned whether he was ready for the responsibilities of the office. After 6 cheating expulsions from La Crosse Vo-Tech Community College and a growing list of DUI, shoplifting, and public indecency arrests, some worried whether the 34-year old should be entrusted with the oxyacetylene "button." But Norm pointed out that, mediocrity or not, he was still a Snitker and entitled to his genetic turn at the helm.
The argument won over most of the La Crosse media, and it appeared he was a shoe-in for the job until the evening of December 20, 1981, a night which remains shrouded in mystery and controversy. At a private "no wives" Christmas party attended by Snitker and five stockroom girls from Tri-County, Snitker and Rhonda Lee Reinke, 24, left on his Arctic Cat for what witnesses say was a moonlight cow-tipping tryst. 45 minutes later Snitker arrived at Duegger's Taproom without Reinke. On Christmas morning, Snitker phoned the La Crosse sheriff's department to report that, "oh yeah, I think Rhonda fell in the curd tank at the old dairy plant on Highway KR. Hurry please, help help."
When deputies arrived on the scene with emergency graters, they discovered Reinke's lifeless body, entombed in a 2000-pound cheese wheel.
Norm Snitker continued to profess innocence in the tragedy, blaming his reporting delay on "confusion and stress," but even after 5 beer-free days he still tested 0.23 on the sherriff's breathalizer. He was never charged in the incident, but Cheddarquidick would bring a sudden end to his dreams of carrying on the family legacy at Tri-County.
"After a tragic disappointment like that, most people would probably move far away, to Tomah or Boscobel or Viroqua," said Linda Gompersdorf, resident scholar of Snitker Studies at La Crosse Vo-Tech. "But not Norman Snitker. Somewhere inside he found the courage to move on, and he rededicated his life to fighting to make sure everyone had access to free universal alcohol."
By all accounts he approached the fight for alcohol with all the fierceness and determination that marked his previous fights for alcohol. He traveled tirelessly to local bars, taverns, bowling lounges, supper clubs, exotic dance establishments, tractor pulls and drag strips, using his glamor and cachet as a Snitker to order countless free rounds for everyone. At first, local barkeepers were quick to oblige his request, but he soon found mounting corporate opposition to his mounting bar tabs.
"Norm was ferocious in his battles with Big Tavern," said Gompersdorf, citing his 2003 leveling of an Onalaska taproom with an unguarded front loader. "He was always about the little guy."
While Gompersdorf and other admirers praised his work for free alcohol across La Crosse County, they point to other aspects of his legacy.
"Let's not forget him standing up for free hot wings and pickled eggs," said Jerry Kohler, 46. Snitker was also deeply involved in foreign charities, raising hundreds of dollars for Northern Iowa Presbyterian separatist movements.
Snitker received some criticism after sources leaked his secret 1996 letter to Chicago Bears head coach Dave Wannstadt, offering to sabotage Packer QB Brett Favre's jock strap for "two kegs of Point." Supporters say the criticism was unfounded.
"You have to remember that was in the darkest days of the Bears-Packers cold war," said La Crosse Thrifty Nickel sports editor Lloyd Schneidlerke. "Norm has always been a Packer patriot. He truly felt his Cramergesic plan was the best way to improve the punt team."
As tears and Jager shots flowed in the pews of First Presbyterian, there was a sense that Norman Snitker's death brought to an end the long legacy of Snitker rule in La Crosse. Many La Crossians hold out hope that an heir apparent will emerge from the next generation of Snitkers, but the once white-hot inert gas flame of Snitker welding celebrity has seemingly flickered. LMS daughter Tiffani Snitker-Pflugelhoefer, the presumptive next-in-line to the family bar stool, has resisted pressure to take the office, citing career obligations at a Prairie du Chien Farm and Fleet. Other Snitker cousins cite obligations at local halfway houses and work-release programs.
"No matter how hard times were, me and my family have always had a Snitker to call on," said grieving Clifford Albrechtson. "Now I'm worried where my next boilermaker is going to come from."
Others vowed to carry on the fight, and said they would push the La Crosse city council to fund the planned $1.2 billion Norman V. Snitker memorial public Shnapps fountain.
At the packed memorial service, Pastor Ed Vos urged mourners to remember the full measure of their fallen friend.
"Whatever his endless shortcomings were as a human being, we cannot let a few DUIs, cheese entombments and arson episodes overshadow the many good things that Norm thought he did," said Vos. "Let us all recognize that Norm stood up for what he thought was right. No matter whether it was really right or not, and no matter how blotto he was. I suppose we all have to respect a man who can maintain that kind of fierce moral clarity. And can hold his liquor like that."