I'm different, and I know I am. Socrates said, 'The shortest and surest way to live with honor in the world is to be in reality what we would appear to be.' —Dan Snarr
MURRAY — Dan Snarr, Murray’s outgoing four-term mayor, starts talking before he even sits down for a scheduled interview — and keeps talking for the next 2½ hours without coming up for air. Hardly a question needs to be asked. He talks and talks. He apologizes for this several times, blaming it on “ADHD,” but then picks up where he left off.
When Snarr talks, all a journalist can do is get out of the way and try to take notes, if he can keep up. Everyone tells Snarr his mind goes 100 miles per hour, but that’s conservative. Whatever pops into his mind comes out of his mouth, and he leaps from one subject to another with no order, one tangent leading to another. He talks about everything. The infusion of new businesses in Murray. His childhood. The mustache. His work ethic. His cowboy poetry. His love of flowers. Weeds. His wife. The people who don’t like him, which, by his estimation, constitute a crowd.
Snarr, who will turn 64 on Jan. 1, got into politics 16 years ago, but he’s no politician. He doesn’t look like one, doesn’t dress like one, doesn’t talk like one, doesn’t work like one. He says what’s on his mind, and doesn’t worry about political expediency. “Most politicians do this,” he says, sticking his finger in his mouth and pointing it to the sky, as if testing which way the wind is blowing. There is no subterfuge, no spin; what you see is what you get — a man who’s a little rough around the edges by a politician’s standards, but passionate, aggressive, outspoken and, always, genuine.
“I’m different, and I know I am," he says. "Socrates said, ‘The shortest and surest way to live with honor in the world is to be in reality what we would appear to be.”
Different? Name another mayor who sports a handlebar mustache that is 22 inches from tip to tip and moves up and down like wings when he talks. Name another mayor who punctuates his conversation with quotes from Socrates, O.C. Tanner, Aristotle, Martin Luther King and Joseph Smith. Name another politician who drives a rusty old car and gets up at 4 a.m. to plow snow and keeps a sprayer in his back seat so he can kill weeds around town just to experience that warm feeling of progress that he craves. Name another mayor who has been asked to perform hundreds of marriages or who once threatened bodily harm to a rival candidate.
Different? That doesn’t begin to describe him.
To quote an old movie, let me explain no, there is too much. Let’s try to tell this story one bite at a time.
The *#*$# mayor
Snarr once asked an unsuspecting Murray citizen what he thought about all the development in Murray. Snarr says he was fishing for a compliment; instead, he got an earful. “We’re lucky anything happens with that d--- mayor in charge,” he began and went on for another five minutes like that. Snarr listened and when the man was finished he explained why things were done the way they were in Murray, issue by issue. “How do you know so much about this?” the man asked. Snarr replied, “Because I’m the d--- mayor.”
As Snarr discusses his life, he often adds a parenthetical remark after mentioning someone he has met along the way — i.e., “He probably doesn’t like me” or “he hates my guts.” Snarr has not endeared himself to everyone during his four terms in office because he has brought change and development. “Those who are unwilling to invest in the future will never have one,” he likes to say.
Snarr led the way to tear down the famed old smelter site with its familiar twin brick smokestacks and, after months of intense negotiations and threats of litigation, convinced the 17 owners of the property to sell to Intermountain Medical Center, which was built on the site. Snarr also has overseen revitalization of the city’s gateway on Main Street and a cleanup project that led to the creation of 32-acre Willow Pond Park.
He played a role in bringing three large hotels to the city, as well as the University of Utah medical campus, a large apartment complex and expansion of Fashion Place Mall. Dilapidated and sometimes boarded buildings were replaced by revenue-producing commercial projects. He laid the groundwork by sinking $42 million into improved electrical power and other infrastructure, which attracted the businesses.
“Murray suffered for so long without change,” says Snarr. “We had to ask, 'What do we need to do to make people believe Murray is a good place to do business?'"
Murray has the lowest taxes of any city in Salt Lake County, largely because they are offset by the taxes reaped from the $1.8 billion worth of new development the city has attracted.
Snarr says he was reviled in the process and sometimes threatened. People felt sentimental for old buildings, even the smokestacks. One of the hotel projects, located near the hospital, drew special ire.
“It barely passed, by one vote," he says. "The City Council was shaking in their boots; they were worried people wouldn’t vote for them. People are always threatening that they won’t vote for me. I want what’s good for the city, not what’s going to get me elected."
Snarr decided not to run for re-election this fall largely because he is weary of dealing with people who are angry about his development projects.
“It’s taken its toll on me,” he says. “People complain, but if it requires sacrifice or them doing something about it, they say, oh, no, that’s government’s responsibility."
Case in point: He received several complaints about a woman’s yard. She lived alone and her yard had gone to weeds. Snarr finally took care of the problem himself. He ripped out the weeds and patchy grass, hauled it to the dump, installed a new sprinkler system, and laid new sod. It took him five months. He has done the same thing for other yards in the area, usually those belonging to widows and the elderly.
“Everyone complains,” he says. “Let’s do something about it.”
There was an empty lot that was an eyesore; it also drew complaints. Rather than call city employees, the mayor sprayed the weeds and tended the yard — for seven years. Eventually, he paved the way for an apartment complex to be built there, which drew more complaints from residents.
“I stepped up to do something about this, and I've been doing it for years," he told them in a meeting that aired the gripes, "None of you came to my aid. You waved at me. Now we are going to do something that’s productive with this property.”
Snarr revels in progress. He drives around the city simply to look for problems to fix. What he saw for years were weeds. City employees cut them down only to see them grow back. “Weeds are not a cash crop,” he said. He sprayed the weeds instead and did it himself — and he’s still spraying. He carries a backpack sprayer in the back seat of his car, and when he sees weeds while driving around town he pulls over and poisons them.
“He does that all the time,” says his wife, April. “People complain, but I see him do things no one else would do. No job is beneath him. He’ll be driving around and say: ‘This is bugging me. I’m going to come over and do that yard.’ He’ll just show up with a backpack on. The (residents) will look out their window and wonder who’s in their yards. He looks like a Ghostbuster.”
Snarr, whose great-grandfather was an early settler in Murray in 1860, wants others to share in his sense of pride in the community and act. He believes in appearances, which is why he had the shrubs ripped out on State Street and replaced with flowers. “I love flowers,” he says. “O.C. Tanner used to say, what your image is on the outside attracts people to the inside. That’s why his businesses looked so good."
People ask Snarr why he is so aggressive in his job, and he says, “Because I like to get up and see progress in the making.”
Snarr’s father, Alma, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when Dan was a boy. Alma was in and out of the hospital the last five years of his life and pretty much confined there in his final year. Sometimes his father would call Dan and ask him to skip school and take him for a drive around the valley just to give him a break from the hospital. He died when Snarr was 19.
“He was a great man, very kind,” recalls Dan Snarr.
The Snarrs never had much money even before Alma’s illness, but Alma told Dan something he still remembers to this day: “You can have anything if you’re willing to work for it.” Dan began working at 12 and has never stopped. The family’s neighbors were men of means — among them, O.C. Tanner and Lowell Bennion. Tanner hired Dan to mow lawns and landscape his businesses and home; Bennion gave him a job building a boys ranch in Idaho.
Snarr was a natural entrepreneur. In college, he delivered groceries to various stores with a tractor-trailer. Afterward, the stores filled the empty trailer with damaged products to take the dump. He was so much faster than the other drivers that he was hired to handle the dump haul exclusively, but instead of an hourly rate he negotiated a flat fee. Eventually, it occurred to him to sell the damaged goods to a salvage business, adding to his profit. He was making $2,000 a month as a college student in the mid-1970s, which enabled him to buy a house while still going to school. And still he worked more. He worked on lawns at night.
At 19, he joined the National Guard, and for the next 11 years he was a demolitions expert and paratrooper with the 19th Special Forces Group. At 21, he took leave to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Scotland.
A Sterling Scholar in high school, he graduated with honors from the University of Utah with a degree in communications and a minor in finance and marketing. For the next 15 years he worked for three Fortune 500 companies in sales — U.S. Steel, Burroughs Corp. (now Unisys) and Compugraphic. That was his day job. At night and on weekends, he and cousin Ron, who had formed Snarr Brothers Landscaping, mowed lawns and landscaped yards. They hired employees to work for them during the day. At 38, he devoted himself full time to the landscaping business and grew it to $2 million in annual revenue.
“I control my ADHD by working to exhaustion,” he says.
He still gets up at 4 a.m. and plows his own properties. “I love it,” he says. “I like to get up and see that I got something done.”
His mind is always working, looking for ideas. April complains that he doesn’t talk to her when they drive together. “He says it’s because he’s analyzing things,” she says. “His mind is always working. He’s making (mental) lists of what he’s accomplished and things he’s got to do and how long it will take.”
The entrepreneurial mind is always working, as well. He has written a children's book he is trying to publish. He designed and manufactured Olympic-theme socks, of all things, to sell during the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Games. He sold out his inventory of 10,000 pairs and had orders for 50,000 more that he couldn’t deliver. He created a bungee-cord adapter ("It makes every bungee the right size”), which he hopes to market.
He is always thinking of something to occupy his energy and mind. He spent a week designing and then building a block "U" with 361 LED lights — a replica of the one on the floor of the Huntsman Center. It took eight men to place it on his roof. Helicopter pilots from the hospital say they can see it from the sky.
The rust buckets
Snarr is known and recognized around Murray for two things: The vehicle he drives and the mustache. We’ll get to the latter, but as to the former, he drives a rusting 1991 Honda Civic he bought for $300. It has holes in the upholstery and leaks water onto the dashboard when it rains. His other vehicle is a similarly rusted 1991 Chevy pickup, which neighbors borrow so frequently that he gave spare keys to four of them. Both vehicles have about 220,000 miles on them. And yet Snarr could easily afford any car.
“It’s just ridiculous,” says April. “He has this thing about driving ugly cars. It’s driving me crazy.”
He once bought a Lexus for April "to make her happy.” He refused to drive it — “I was uncomfortable to be seen in it,” he says. He’s got a couple of motorcycles in the garage, including a Harley, but that’s pretty much where they remain.
“I’m not materialistic at all,” he says.
Pretentious, he’s not. In a world of suits and ties, he wears jeans and khakis with boots and flannel shirts. For years he wore a beat-up denim jacket when working outside. It looked as if it had been hit with a dozen shotgun blasts. April threw it away five times and he retrieved it five times. Finally, employees stole it from the office and placed it in a large frame, under glass. It now hangs on the wall of the mayor’s office.
Looking back, Snarr says: “I came from a poor family. I didn’t want to see my kids go through what I went through, but in some way it’s a disservice. It makes you stronger to have adversity. It makes you a better person if you can find a way to overcome it.”
Dan and April, who have been married for 40 years, have faced adversity while raising their family of five children — Heather, Tucker, Trevor (who is a familiar name because of his movie-acting career), Denver and Samantha. Denver became addicted to pain medication while recovering from a series of injuries and died of an overdose a few years ago. Samantha, like her grandfather, has M.S.
“Just don’t ever give up,” says Snarr. “Endure to the end. Try to be a good person. Try to be fair and honest. Try to help people. Try to do good. Do what in your heart you know is best for everyone, not just you.”
With the possible exception of Santa Claus and Abraham Lincoln, no one has gotten more mileage out of facial hair. It’s been the target of two fundraising events. It’s been mentioned in magazines and newspapers. It’s been a curiosity for hundreds of passers-by who want their pictures taken with him — airline crews, people on the sidewalk, tourists in Washington, D.C. During all the fuss over Murray’s "American Idol" star, David Archuleta, his mustache drew mention from host Ryan Seacrest.
In 2008, shortly before he was going to begin a campaign for re-election, he was urged to shave the mustache for charity. He begged off by suggesting that voters decide the matter. Citizens voted to shave it off. A representative from the "Ellen Degeneres Show" called, inviting him to shave it on the show. He declined, explaining that he had already promised he would do it at Costco. So the mustache fell — with April doing the honors — and $2,200 was raised for the Children’s Miracle Network. The American Mustache Institute posted a eulogy for the mayor's mustache on its website.
He grew it again, and two years ago he was asked to shave for charity again. Once again, he put the decision in the hands of Murray citizens, who were told to give him the thumbs-up or thumbs-down signal during the city’s annual Fourth of July Parade. His city employees gave him a reprieve by bringing up the rear en masse and giving him the thumbs up. The event was written about in newspapers as far away as Iraq and Scotland.
Afterward, he was invited to appear on the "Steve Harvey Show" for "marriage counseling" (April hates the ‘stache) and shave it on the air. But in the Green Room before the show he asked April not to shave it, as planned. She cut four inches.
The ‘stache is thriving again and is currently unthreatened, all 22 inches. He plans to enter it as the longest handlebar mustache in history. He washes it each night and the next morning he requires 10 minutes to get it ready for the day (you can watch the process in an online video). He sprays it with hairspray and then coats it with styling gel so that both wings point straight to his shoulders. He can pull them down and they spring right back into place. Snarr actually poked himself in the eye one night with the mustache and his eye got so infected that it glued itself shut.
“I’m a showboat, but I’m an honest one,” he says.
Poets and philosophers
On the wall of Snarr’s office are framed posters with quotes from many of the world’s great philosophers and statesmen — Longfellow, Thoreau, Frost, Wordsworth, Mandela, Ghandi, Mother Theresa and those mentioned early in this article. He calls Longfellow’s “Psalms of Life” his personal inspiration, and he can quote it from memory, along with countless other poems.
Not everything is high-brow. The mayor has written dozens of what he calls “cowboy” poems over the years about everything from a BYU-Utah dodgeball tournament to his mustache and Murray itself. A few years ago the mayor was invited to speak to students at Murray High School as part of the day’s events for the Great American Smokeout, the anti-cigarette campaign. He dashed off one of his “cowboy” poems for the occasion in about 10 minutes, read it to his attorney, who begged him not to read it, and then debuted it at the assembly.
The poem closed this way: “It’s the manufacturers who do you harm, for profits are their charm, and they know it all too well, your life they take to make their profits swell. Let’s all just stand and tell them to go to h---!”
He then proceeded to lead the students in a chant that repeated the last line. It wasn’t appreciated by parents and school officials, even if the sentiment was right, but that’s Snarr. He calls himself a child at heart; others say he should act more like a mayor.
For all of that, he has reached out to the community in his loud, here-I-am-world way, and not just when it comes to repairing yards. He instructed his assistant to leave Fridays open so he can talk to people in the community. He is a regular visitor to grade schools and especially anti-drug events.
Over the years he has received scathing emails from citizens who are upset about something. He shows up at their door at night, unannounced, emails in hand. It scares them until he says, “I want to hear what you have to say and then I want to explain why we did things the way we did.”
That sort of personal touch has won over at least part of the population. For some reason he receives frequent invitations to perform marriages — about 265, by his estimate. “He’s a people person,” says April. “He’s always hugging people and talking to them and waving to them.”
Privately, he gripes about politics. His pet peeve is dishonesty in politics (in a face-to-face showdown after a debate, he once threatened to punch out a political rival for telling lies about him, but wasn’t taken up on the invitation).
“The greatest advocate for progress is truth, and that’s what’s missing in politics,” says Snarr.
Snarr’s mayoral term ends with 2013, but he is probably not done with politics. The Democrats have asked him to consider running for a seat on the Salt Lake County Council. As his days as a mayor wind down, he turns reflective: “We got some nice things done. Now new adventures are on the horizon. There are still a lot of great things left to do.”
Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: [email protected]