Say it ain’t so, Joe

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It was late last Thursday afternoon when I got a text message that Joe Snopek had been flown to Kelowna after suffering a heart attack, and a follow-up shortly afterward indicated it was not a major concern. My heart sank later when I learned he would not survive.

Gone is Ordinary Joe, as he liked to describe himself, our no-nonsense Town Counsellor and former two-time mayor. Gone is Creston Town Hall’s last direct connection to the late great Lela Irvine, from whom Joe learned the fine art of local politics and running efficient, inclusive meetings.

I first met Joe not long after he and Karen moved from Southern Alberta and bought Park Store, across from Centennial Park, in the early 1980s. A friend, Boyd Batke, who owned Creston Valley Bakery, lived nearby and decided we should wander over so I could meet Joe. He invited us in and to the living quarters beside the little convenience store and poured us each a shot of moonshine. He was coy about his source, and never did find out if he had a source or made the stuff himself. Joe Snopek, I learned at that moment, was a character.

He soon became a familiar face at Alex Ewashen’s auctions, and eventually plied that trade by operating his own business. It was at his popular weekly auctions on Railway Boulevard that his reputation, and popularity grew. He was a good, entertaining auctioneer and had an easy rapport with his customers, many of whom attended those auctions to buy stuff they really didn’t need, lured by the promise of good deals instead.

Joe parlayed his popularity into a political career when he won a by-election in 1998 and was re-elected as a Town Counsellor in 1999. In 2002 he ran for mayor and won, making the news by walking along Canyon Street downtown and counting the potholes. It mattered not a whit to him that the street was and is a provincial responsibility—a decent council would resolve the problem, he said.

He took to local government like a fish to water, and was soon involved in the Association of Kootenay Boundary Local Governments and the Union of BC Municipalities. He made a name for himself, and Creston, at the federal level, too. The Advance has a great photo of Joe riding in the Blossom Festival parade on a mini-motorbike, but as Ordinary Joe he preferred to walk the route, eschewing the traditional convertible conveyance most mayors have preferred. Easier to connect with his constituents on foot.

He earned a second term in 2005 and it was during that period that the referendum to upgrade the Rec Centre and build an aquatic centre. Like local RDCK area directors, Snopek was caught by surprise at the result—none of the local leaders took a stand to promote the Yes side of the vote (though they didn’t voice opposition, either). I remember commenting at the time that there was no Plan A as to how to proceed with construction because none of them thought the referendum could pass. What’s Plan B, I asked.

It turned out that Plan B was a decision by elected officials to step back from the process and turn over the design efforts to a volunteer group, some appointed and others representing user groups like the aquatic society. Joe, to my eternal gratitude, used his vote to appoint me, and it turned out to be an extremely satisfying experience. The regional directors made financial decisions, but left the design to the team, architect and Rec Centre staff. We got lucky, if an economic downtown can be described that way, and bids for various aspects of the construction routinely came in under estimates. The end result stands for itself, and I never enter the building without a silent thanks to Joe for allowing me to be part of the process.

Illness led to his not getting a third term as mayor, but he dropped into my office occasionally to chat, and express his frustration that volunteers were burning out. He had all kinds of community involvements and they were wearing him down—keep in mind he continued to do auctions every few months or two, no small undertaking for one guy.

I wasn’t the only one who happily cast a vote two years ago that helped return Joe to the Council table. His experience and knowledge were simply too valuable to ignore. Mayor Ron Toyota also supported his candidacy.

Last week, Joe Snopek attended a Creston-Kaminoho Friendship Society meeting after wrapping up yet another Creston Valley Fall Fair. On Tuesday he chaired a public hearing before the regular Town Council meeting. I noticed that he was a bit shaky, but otherwise in very good spirits.

It’s impossible to overestimate the value that Joe Snopek brought to our community, and we are all the richer for having had him as a friend, neighbour, mayor, councillor and auctioneer. Somewhere, I hope, he and Lela Irvine are having a little chat, talking about things that need to be done wherever they happen to be. It will be a fine reunion of two passionate, effective and unforgettable leaders.