True Believer Area attorney relishes role in serving county

By Tom Kirvan

Legal News

He was on the tennis court when summoned to legal duty.

Gordon Snavely -- an attorney specializing in estate planning, probate work, and real estate law -- remembers the moment well.

He was on court, not in court, with then Oakland County Executive Dan Murphy, one of his regular tennis partners. It was more than a quarter century ago and Snavely recalls that Murphy could be "just as crafty" on the tennis court as in his normal executive setting.

"There was a break in the tennis action and he said quite simply, 'You're going to get a letter from me,'" Snavely recalls of the verbal volley lobbed by Murphy. "That's all he said. When I asked him what the letter would be all about, he said it would become clear once I received it."

Somewhat.

The letter invited Snavely to serve on a newly-formed county panel, nebulously named the "Claims Review Committee." It was to be a five-member committee that would meet periodically to help guide the county through the legal shoals of troubled waters.

"In reality, I believe the committee was an offshoot of the growing pains in the relationship between the newly created county executive position and the County Board of Commissioners," Snavely said. "There was a tug-of-war over who controlled legal matters and it was thought that it would be best to create a special committee that could work independently."

Now, some 25 years later, Snavely is still serving on the panel, which reviews matters where the potential legal exposure to the county exceeds $25,000 in damages. In fact, he is its chairman, and in November was recognized by the Board of Commissioners with a special proclamation for his "extraordinary voluntary contributions and unparalleled service to Oakland County."

It is all in a day's work for Snavely, self-declared "president of the Oakland County Fan Club" and a native of Royal Oak. He relishes the opportunity to be "involved and to contribute to the good" of the community. He does so at various turns, serving on the Oakland County Zoological Authority and previously on the Central Michigan University Development Board.

His work on behalf of CMU seemed a bit odd at first, he admitted.

"I didn't attend CMU, nor did any of my children," Snavely said. "I really didn't have any ties to the university."

But when a friend asked him to serve on the fund-raising board at CMU, Snavely was "happy to oblige," immediately applying his legal smarts and networking talents for the long-term benefit of the university in Mount Pleasant. He was instrumental in efforts to create an endowment for the Philip A. Hart and William G. Milliken Speaker Series for Integrity in Politics.

The series honors the legacies of two of Michigan's most renowned public servants, U.S. Senator Philip Hart (1958-76) and William Milliken (1969-82). According to CMU officials, "both Hart and Milliken's distinguished careers in public office serve as shining examples of cooperation and tolerance in a political climate where partisanship and divisiveness are common obstacles that work to tarnish, rather than enhance, the legislative process."

For Snavely, the speaker series challenges CMU students to approach politics in a way that embraces America's diversity of ideas and perspectives, "working to supplant negativity and partisanship" with creativity and innovation in shaping future public policy. Its purpose fits one of Snavely's political heroes "like a glove."

As a senior at the University of Detroit, Snavely first crossed paths with Milliken, then aspiring to become the state's next lieutenant governor.

"I met him at a civil rights conference at the Ford Fairlane Estate where we both spoke," Snavely said of the up-and-coming Republican leader. "He asked me to come to work for him as he sought the position of lieutenant governor. Needless to say, I was honored to be asked. It was a case of being in the right place at the right place for me. He is a mentor of mine. In my opinion, he set the gold standard for public service."

His work with the Milliken campaign offered Snavely the opportunity to meet a number of political heavyweights, including New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. He also would have the chance to attend a speech that still reverberates around the nation today.

"I was there when Martin Luther King delivered his 'I Have a Dream' speech," Snavely recalled. "It was another case in my life of being in the right place at the right time."

He could say the same about attending a theology class at U of D. It was there that he would meet his future wife, Mary Jo, who attended high school in Grosse Pointe Farms.

"She said that she wanted to sit next to the best looking guy in class," Snavely said of their chance meeting. "Of course, later she would amend that by saying that I was the only guy in class."

Whatever the case, the two were married in 1965 while Snavely was attending law school at the University of Detroit. The couple, who celebrated their 45th anniversary in December, have three children, Ted, Rob, and Suzanne. Their oldest is an attorney, while son Rob teaches real estate courses at Baker College. Daughter Suzanne is a computer executive in Silicon Valley.

"My wife keeps me grounded," Snavely said, noting that she recently retired as secretary to the principal at Bloomfield Hills Middle School. "She has been a wonderful wife and mother. We have been best friends from almost the time we met."

Her college plans took years to unfold following a move to San Francisco, according to Snavely.

"She completed her degree at St. Mary's College, graduating on the same day (in 1992) that our oldest son earned his degree from Albion College," Snavely said. "Needless to say, we attended the ceremony at Albion. She wouldn't have had it any other way."

A 1960 graduate of Royal Oak Kimball High School, Snavely had early designs on a career in the law.

"I was 8 years old when I decided that I was either going to be a first baseman for the Tigers or a lawyer," Snavely recalled. "It became readily apparent later on that if I was going to eat three meals a day, I better be a lawyer."

While attending law school, Snavely met L. Brooks Patterson, a man who would carve out an impressive career as Oakland County prosecutor and now as its chief executive. Snavely said Patterson's talent was evident from the get-go.

"He has a vastly superior mind," Snavely said of Patterson. "I remember the legendary Professor William Kelly Joyce telling our class that either he or I was going to become governor -- I immediately thought I'd vote for Brooks. I am honored to be his friend."

Snavely's parents, Rosemary and Gordon, undoubtedly knew their son was a good judge of character. His father owned a clothing store in Royal Oak and was a "man's man," according to Snavely.

"My parents were the most caring, most attentive, and most supportive people you could be around," Snavely said. "They instilled a sense of confidence in me. They were always there for me. To them, your word was your bond and that is a truth that I have lived by throughout my career."

His first job out of law school was with a firm headed by Bill Hampton, a former judge and state legislator who has enjoyed a brilliant career as a municipal law attorney.

"Working with someone as experienced and knowledgeable as Bill Hampton served as a great building block for my career," Snavely said. "He's a friend to whom I'll be forever indebted."

The opportunity would offer Snavely the chance to develop his own expertise in real estate law, estate planning, and probate law. It has been a career where he has constantly treasured a quote from the late William O. Douglas, one of the true legal legends in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court.

"Common sense often makes good law," Justice Douglas once wrote.

For Snavely, the statement has far greater implications.

"In every aspect of my life, I try to employ a common sense approach, even in the most complicated of situations," he said. "It is a method that has lasting value."

Published: Mon, Feb 21, 2011