In the film, the fictional character George Bailey makes big plans, yet due to circumstances beyond his control, cannot leave his small town. He eventually realizes that as a result, he has had a huge positive impact on the people living there.
Like the character George Bailey, Snyder once believed he would grow up and move on, yet circumstances kept him from achieving this, leading him down a different road.
"I thought [living in Secaucus] was a pit stop on my way to law school," he said.
And like Bailey, Snyder - for a variety of reasons - never left, becoming an important part in helping to develop and expand the town's senior housing, and more recently, housing for residents of low and moderate incomes. To show the town's appreciation for Snyder, they roasted him on July 19 at the Radisson Hotel, a tradition in which people close to someone get to mock him with affection. But it was Snyder's own speech ending the night's festivities that made many people realize how little any of them knew about Snyder, as he told them about his painful upbringing.
A part of Old Secaucus
Snyder was born and raised in Secaucus. In fact, his family is part of that particular group of people known as "Old Secaucus." His family moved to Secaucus in 1900, the same year the town broke away from North Bergen to incorporate itself as an independent town.
Indeed, most people see Snyder as a local success story, and he even acknowledges the "local boy made good" mythology others tend to heap on his shoulders. Although in truth, he said, the issue was far more complex, full of pits of depression, frightened moments of near despair, and even homelessness, as well as success.
For people in Secaucus, the concept of homelessness seems a bit farfetched, something they would expect in neighboring cities, but not in the comfortable little nest Secaucus has been.
Yet Snyder as well as many other professionals in the industry know that homelessness and other personal disasters can happen to anyone, anywhere, even in Secaucus. Snyder said he and his siblings grew up poor, and as a result had a lot of problems to overcome, despite the illusion of nothing bad happening to people in small towns.
"We moved more than 10 times," Snyder said in an interview last week. "That's one of the reasons why I'm in the business."
Snyder said his family suffered from hunger. He remembered one incident in which he had earned a dollar and went out and purchased three loaves of Wonder bread just so the family could eat. He remembered the odd luxury of eating five slices in one sitting.
In fact, when his parents parted, Snyder and siblings found themselves for a time without a place to live, one of those haunting memories that continued to affect him and motivated him into the housing industry.
"When my parents split, we were without housing," Snyder said. "You can't really know what it means to be homeless until you have been without shelter at some point in your life. Just as you can't really know what it means to go hungry, unless you've gone without food."
This memory as a young boy of having no place to call home propelled him to make certain that as few as possible other people felt that way.
"Living through those things has made me better at what I do," Snyder said. "I take it personally, and remember all the things we had to overcome as kids."
An aunt eventually stepped in and helped Snyder and his siblings.
Mayor Dennis Elwell said last week that Snyder's story surprised him.
"I knew Bill was born and raised in Secaucus," Elwell said. "I also knew his father and mother, but until that night, I didn't know how tough Bill had it growing up."
Elwell said Snyder vowed to never allow his family members to go without something they needed.
"To this day, he continues to look after his sister and his aunts," Elwell said. "If they have a problem, he steps in and handles it. He has become like a father to that family. I think in a way, he sees himself as paying them back for when they helped him."
During the last 25 years, Snyder has done as much as possible to make certain that the town's senior population could count on having some place to go. Snyder was involved with setting up the Elms, the first of the town's three federally-funded senior citizens buildings. He was more intimately involved with the next two, helping to negotiate the finances with a local corporation, Hudson County, as well as the state and federal governments, to make certain the buildings were built.
Kroll Heights, another senior building, became a particularly personal project.
The project's roots were in Snyder's junior high days. Like many kids of his generation, Snyder attended Lincoln Junior High School in Secaucus before going on to Weehawken High School to get his high school diploma. He followed his father, aunt and uncle in that tradition. Since then, he watched the school close and rot - a building that many noticed deteriorate daily, as fire and rain worked through its formerly glorious interior.
"It was an important place for me and my family," Snyder admitted during an interview earlier in July. "That's why I was so bent on seeing it get rehabilitated."
Unfortunately, the contractor hired to do the work, defaulted, leaving the building an empty hulk, and after a long, drawn out lawsuit, the town eventually gave up on renovation, and tore the building down.
Even then, Snyder had a vision.
"I felt hurt," he said. "But I was determined to use that property for senior housing."
Snyder, who had served as assistant executive director of the Secaucus Housing Authority, was suddenly promoted, and as a top official in the housing authority, he made the rounds, searching for money with which he could build on that property. He met with congressmen and senators and others on the state and county level. He also met with local businesspeople.
"I went to Hartz Mountain [Industries]," he said. "I got them to commit millions of dollars to the project."
This was part of Hartz' affordable housing obligation, and combined with money from Hudson County and elsewhere, construction started on the site, which eventually resulted in the third of the town's senior citizen's buildings, Kroll Heights.
Avoiding the political scene
Over the years, the Housing Authority has had its share of pitched political battles, but Snyder seems to have avoided most of them, and has been seen as someone who takes whichever side is in the best interest of the senior citizen residents.
"While I've always spoken my mind on that board," said former SHA member Frank MacCormack, at times the sole Republican on a primarily Democratic board, "I got along with Snyder. I respected him and I know he works six or seven days a week. He is extremely knowledgeable and does excellent work."
Secaucus Director of Social Services Karyn Utronowski had her offices in the Elms when she first started in Secaucus.
"We only had the one building back then," she said. "Bill was a marvelous administrator back then and a meticulous organizer. He attended to every detail. He wanted everything perfect in his building and was always ready to upgrade and make changes for the better."
She said Snyder's strength was his ability to set up systems that allowed other people such as social workers and housing authority personnel to function in helping senior citizens.
Elwell said Snyder's 25 years in Secaucus has been a boon for the town.
"There is no other community in this state that has the caliber of senior and affordable housing that we have in Secaucus," Elwell said. "And that is directly due to Snyder. He is top notch, the best in the state. He has brought a tremendous insight into Secaucus with senior programs. Many housing authority directors call on Bill just for advice."
Snyder has served on state and national boards, through which he helped shape many of the programs now in place governing senior housing. He has even testified before Congress. On the municipal level, Snyder also serves as the administrator for the town's Affordable Housing Board, a not-for private corporation dedicated to the advancement of low- and moderate-income housing.
"I worked with him since 1984 when he was still assistant executive director," said Michael Altileo, a member of the Affordable Housing Board. "He is very knowledgeable and very well-respected around the state."
Most of those who deal with him on a day to day basis call him "a man of ideas," someone who has mastered and even helped shape housing policies for seniors throughout the state.
"I think what I am most proud of is my ability to take a leadership role in the industry," Snyder said last week.
It is because of his national contacts, he said, that he was able to understand all of the components that go into the successful program in Secaucus. He said many of the programs he developed here have since become the model for housing authorities across the nation.
To this end, he has been involved with the national trade associations, bankers, housing officials, tax officials and he has even testified before Congress.
Snyder said that because Secaucus was a quiet place that avoided the corrupt practices found elsewhere during the 1970s and 1980s, Snyder could shape ideas into reality.
"It because Secaucus was such a quiet town that we could do what we've done here, and exported it to the rest of the nation," Snyder said.
While he said he has started on the next 25 years in Secaucus housing, he admits he will likely move onto a state platform in the future, finally managing what George Bailey in the movie could not: to move on up out of the little town where he was born.