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ANN CONWAY

Widow's Work for Foundation a Fitting Tribute to Her Husband

September 08, 1997|ANN CONWAY

For Christina Snyder, the story-line rang true: sophisticated man falls in love with girlish young woman, shows her a world about which she has only dreamed.

It happened to Eliza Doolittle in the George Bernard Shaw classic "Pygmalion," which opened Friday at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa.

And it happened in real life to Snyder, 31, of Newport Beach, the play's honorary producer.

At 24 she fell in love with Rich Snyder, 38, the wealthy president of In-N-Out Burger Inc.

During their courtship and after their marriage in the spring of 1992, her world opened up: There was the Cape Cod-style home--built by stars of the silver screen--to renovate, dinners with world leaders to attend, exotic trips to take.

But happily-ever-after lasted a year and a half.

In December 1993, Rich Snyder was killed when the chartered plane in which he was a passenger went out of control in the turbulence generated by the wake of a Boeing 757 landing at John Wayne Airport. The small plane crashed in a fireball near the Santa Ana Auto Mall.

"You never dream that a tragedy like that could be possible," Snyder says, sitting in her bay-side Newport Beach home, built in 1941 by screen actors Dick Powell and Joan Blondell. "We planned to have children. We renovated this house for our family. The day before his death, Rich was right here, having a meeting with our contractor."

Healing from the tragedy has been slow-coming, she admits. And, were it not for a few close friends, Snyder might not be what she is today: a woman sure enough of herself to recently join the board of SCR and oversee a Sept. 27 gala to benefit the Rich Snyder Foundation, which she heads.

Coincidentally, the foundation benefit falls on the same night as SCR's "Stagestruck!" fund-raiser at the Westin South Coast Plaza hotel.

Bad timing, Snyder concedes. But necessary, since former Vice President Dan Quayle will be the keynote speaker at the foundation event and it was the only night he had available. The $1,000-per-person event will be at the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda.

Included in the festivities will be a film tribute to Snyder, a man characterized by his widow as a "humble, well-rounded human being."

Hugely successful in business, "he had every reason to be arrogant and yet he wasn't," Snyder says. "He wasn't concerned about people worshiping the ground he walked on."

It was his humility that first drew her to him, she explains.

"Our first date was right after Thanksgiving and he'd just spent it in L.A. feeding the homeless. He was so excited about what a great experience it was. I was taken by his humility and that is exactly why I accepted date No. 2."

Later, Snyder learned that in 1986 her husband, along with his mother, Esther Snyder, had founded the Child Abuse Fund. "Rich loved children; that's where his heart was," she says.

After her husband's death, the fund was renamed the Rich Snyder Foundation in his honor. It is fitting that she is coordinating the first public benefit for the foundation, she says. "Rich exposed me to many wonderful experiences but he also taught me a lot about real values." The foundation supports child abuse centers throughout the West Coast and Nevada.

Snyder knows well the trauma that comes from child abuse. As a teenager she was molested over the course of a year by a family friend. "I ended up pregnant, had a baby girl who is now 16," she says.

She doesn't ask for sympathy, only understanding. "I want to be perceived as someone who knows what it's like to get through tough times, who's learning to overcome tragedy," she says. "I'm still in the process."

*

On Friday night, Snyder was surrounded by well-wishers during the kickoff of SCR's 34th season. As the play's honorary producer (with a $25,000 donation), she was feted at a private Center Club dinner attended by "Pygmalion" director Bill Ludel and theater directors Martin Benson and David Emmes.

Later, from the SCR stage, board President Dee Higby invited the audience to give her a round of applause.

Smiling, Snyder stood and took a shy bow.

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