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Saanich’s Saint Michaels University School bids farewell to long-time head

Bob Snowden will retire as SMUS’ Head of School at the end of the month after 22 years
After 22 years of St. Michaels University School’s Head of School, Bob Snowden, retires at the end of this month. Wolfgang Depner / News Staff

On Saturday, St. Michaels University School students, faculty, staff and alumni will gather on the green pitch of SMUS’ Richmond Road campus to celebrate the career of Bob Snowden and his wife Joan. The location of the occasion completes a circle for the Snowdens because it was the site of their welcome to SMUS in September 1995.

Twenty-two years later, he is preparing himself for life beyond June 30, his last official day as head of school.

“One of the things I look forward to is having more time with my extended family, seeing grandchildren and so on,” he said, sitting in his office. “In fact, on June 30, I have grandchildren coming from Ontario for a week, so I will spend some time with them.”

While Snowden said he looks forward to being in charge of his own schedule, he does not plan on being idle.

“Although I do enjoy gardening and golfing, I am not going to spend the rest of my life gardening and golfing,” he said with a smile. “I will continue to do some work in education.”

Last week’s death of Simon Ibell at the age of 39 has only added to the emotional resonance of Snowden’s final days at SMUS at its community mourns the death of perhaps its most inspirational alumni.

Ibell had Hunter syndrome, a rare genetic disease that limited his growth. Doctors had told his parents that he would not live past the age of five. Yet despite his physical limitations, Ibell graduated in 1996 and worked as a basketball manager for the University of Victoria Vikes’ basketball team and the Olympic men’s team that SMUS’ alumni Steve Nash captained in 2000.

“He lived much longer than anyone anticipated and he went on to do great things, raising money for [the fight against] rare diseases,” said Snowden. “His commitment was so selfless and his own example of how he led a humble and yet articulate life was remarkable. He showed such tremendous focus not on his disability but on his ability.”

Born in Toronto, Snowden grew up and attended school in southern Ontario, studying English and philosophy at the University of Toronto. Foregoing a law career, Snowden taught at two private schools in Ontario, before becoming SMUS’ head of school in 1995.

Snowden has since seen the campus undergo physical, sociological and pedagogical changes.

“Our facilities had not kept up with the school that has been growing, and in some cases were built at a time when construction standards weren’t as high as they are now,” he said. “So there was a need for the redevelopment of facilities. We were fortunate to find a great architect [Paul Merrick] and find donors, who supported the vision of the school and the architect to create wonderful facilities.”

The outcome of this development launched in 2000 under Snowden’s leadership has been a synthesis of ivy-clad brick buildings bespectacled by plenty of glass that say Harry Potter on the outside and Google on the inside. In fact, SMUS renamed one of its new buildings – the school house and the library – the Snowden Library in honour of Snowden and his wife Joan for their contributions to the revitalization of SMUS’ Richmond Road campus.

But if these visible changes are the physical legacy of his tenure, Snowden suggests his more meaningful accomplishments lie behind the facades.

“In my career, that is not what I was brought up to do,” he said. “I’m a teacher by trade and became an administrator. My love is education. So personally, I look at the other changes that have occurred in the school.”

What instills Snowden with the most pride is the growth of financial aid for students.

“When I arrived at the school I gave out about $200,000 in financial aid,” he said. “Next year, we will give out about $2.3 million.”

Fifteen years ago, SMU set itself a target of having over 20 per cent of its student body receiving financial aid. “In the past four, five years, we have had 22, 23 per cent of our students on financial aid. All of us who worked on this feel proud of that evolution of the school.”

SMU, in other words, has deliberately tried to become more financially accessible, a development that has also changed its sociology.

“What we have done in the last 20 years is broaden the appeal [of SMU] to a wider range of students economically and ethnically,” he said. “We have a broader cultural background and a broader economic background in the school than we used to have. I would say it was not a departure from where the school was, but it built on where the school was going.”

The demographics of day-students attending SMU now match the demographics of Victoria, said Snowden.

The deliberate internationalization of SMU has also diversified its student population as students from 26 different nations currently attend SMU. They include Kazakhstan, Omam, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, China, Mexico and Germany among others.

“These students reflect parts of the world where people would like to have a Canadian education and go to a Canadian university,” he said.

The nature of this education has and continues to change over time. The days when SMU students learned classic languages like Latin and Greek as it was common for students receiving a higher education in the western tradition for centuries, if not millennia more or less ended in the 1970s.

This said, SMU remains committed to the central tenets of the western educational tradition defined by the pursuit of truth, the spirit of inquiry and critical thinking. “That is right at the core of what we do,” he said.

“But we also believe that we educate the whole student. They [students] are whole human beings and the student in the classroom has many parts.”

Accordingly, SMU has significantly expanded its athletic offerings, stressed the importance of community service and added fine arts programming.

Mark Turner arrives from the United Kingdom to take over from Snowden, and as Snowden looks back on his career, he has this message for his successor.

“Above all, you have to pursue excellence,” he said. “And excellence is much more than just getting some great score in a competition or having [so many] university acceptances to Stanford, Harvard and so on. Excellence is about developing the potential in a wide range of students … and if you hold to that virtue of excellence, I believe, the school will go from strength to strength.”

Wolf Depner

About the Author: Wolf Depner

I joined the national team with Black Press Media in 2023 from the Peninsula News Review, where I had reported on Vancouver Island's Saanich Peninsula since 2019.
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