Friday, March 30, 2012

Former airports authority chairman kills self, wife

Photo Courtesy Cedar Crest College
Charlie and Adrienne Snelling accept an award at Cedar Crest College, with which they were very involved. The couple was found dead Thursday morning in their Upper Macungie Township home. 

The former chairman of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority killed himself and his wife of 61 years at their home in Pennsylvania on Thursday, airports officials confirmed. Charles D. Snelling, 81, had cared for his wife, Adrienne Snelling, for years since she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

 Snelling, an inventor active in Republican politics, had served on the authority for nine years after being appointed by President George W. Bush. He chaired the authority from January 2010 to December 2011, then remained on the board. He attended the most recent meeting last Wednesday, airports authority staff said.

The authority controls both Dulles International Airport and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport but is also managing the Dulles Rail project that is building Metro’s 23-mile Silver Line.

Many knew Charles D. Snelling as a successful businessman and major figure in Republican politics, but close friends knew him as a husband devoted to his wife of 61 years, the college sweetheart he called "my dear, sweet Adrienne."

He cared for her as her Alzheimer's disease worsened the last few years, happy to nurture her as she had done for him for six decades. What one friend called "a great love affair" ended Thursday when he killed her and then himself in their home in Upper Macungie Township.

"For the past several years our mother had been afflicted by Alzheimer's, and together they struggled greatly to manage the effects of this devastating disease," their family said in a statement.

"After apparently reaching the point where he could no longer bear to see the love of his life deteriorate further, our father ended our mother's life and then took his own life as well. This is a total shock to everyone in the family, but we know he acted out of deep devotion and profound love."

Snelling had been nursing his dementia-stricken wife for more than six years, according to an autobiographical essay he published on the New York Times website in December. The couple, both 81, celebrated their 61st wedding anniversary March 21.

Charles Snelling, a 1954 Lehigh University graduate, was an engineer, entrepreneur and inventor and a major figure in Republican circles, from the Lehigh Valley to Harrisburg to Washington, D.C. He was a regular guest columnist in The Morning Call and had most recently published a piece in Sunday's paper about the fiscal dangers posed by the public pension system.

Adrienne Snelling, a 1952 Cedar Crest College graduate, was a respected fine arts photographer who published two books and frequently exhibited her work. She was appointed to the Pennsylvania Council for the Arts by former Gov. Tom Ridge.

The couple had five children.

Friends were stunned by news of the deaths. Attorney Bruce Davis, who knew the Snellings for four decades, called their relationship "a great love affair."

"They had a special bond, a special relationship, which they shared with their friends," he said. "It's understandable to people that knew them well that they would leave their family, leave life together."

Jane Baker, a former Republican Lehigh County executive and state representative, learned of their deaths before the family issued its statement and said she "wouldn't be surprised" to learn that Snelling had taken his ailing wife's life, and then his own.

"Two years ago [in 2010] their Christmas card was a picture of them, walking hand in hand, backs to the camera, and it said, 'going home,' " Baker said. "Some people who got that card were very upset, because that was the message.

"His wife was a lovely person," Baker said. "I know it was a very difficult time for Charles caring for his wife, and it's certainly a sad ending."

Ed Donley, retired chairman of Air Products, knew Charles Snelling for more than 50 years and worked with him on educational and political activities.

"I know that [Adrienne] has had Alzheimer's disease, which my wife has as well," Donley said. "It's a difficult disease and difficult for any family to live through that experience. She was a very decent, gracious person, both of them were."

In his writings, Snelling frequently expounded on his core beliefs of personal responsibility and human freedom, describing himself on his Facebook page as a Libertarian/Republican and secular humanist.

His pages-long resume hints at the scope of his accomplishments and the range of his interests, listing membership in scores of civic and governmental bodies.

He held 20 patents in the fields of cryogenics and thermodynamics.

He had served on the Lehigh County Republican Committee executive board since 1975 and spent a four-year term on Allentown City Council, including three years as president. At 70, he was appointed to the board of directors of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which manages Reagan and Dulles airports.

In his Times essay, however, Snelling paints these accomplishments as secondary to his love for his wife.

Calling her "my dear, sweet Adrienne," he wrote how she had remained a happy and loving person despite the ravaging effect of Alzheimer's disease on her memory.

Tending to her in her illness is not "noble, it's not sacrificial and it's not painful," he wrote. "It's just right in the scheme of things."

The Snellings met at a Cedar Crest College sophomore dance. Charles Snelling was with a blind date and sat at the same table with a young woman he described as "ravishingly beautiful, bright, well-groomed, well-spoken, mannerly, disciplined and circumspect. Her name was Adrienne Celeste Angeletti. … She was, unfortunately, on the arm of the Yalie who had come to Cedar Crest College for the dance as her date."

Nevertheless, Snelling wooed the young beauty and they married March 21, 1951, the first day of spring break. They spent their honeymoon in Bermuda.


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