Bill Snead, a news photographer who spent more than two decades at The Washington Post and whose career took him from the battlefields of the Vietnam War to the front lines of refugee crises in the Balkans and the Middle East, as well as to the sleek stadiums of the NFL, died Feb. 14 at his home in Lawrence, Kan. He was 78.
The cause was lung cancer, said his wife, Dona Snead.
Although he spent a large chunk of his professional life at The Post, serving for a time as chief of the newspaper’s photo and graphics department, he also maintained strong connections to the newspaper where he began his career in 1954 as a high school senior, the Lawrence Journal-World.
In 1993, while on a sabbatical from The Post, the publisher of the Journal-World invited him to “come back home” and “run our newsroom.” He was a mentor, coach and supervisor of photographers and executive editor of the newspaper, retiring in 2007.
By that time, he had covered Super Bowls and high school sports, rodeos, graduations, political conventions and funerals. In 1992, he was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in feature photography for images he took for The Post on the plight of Kurdish refugees fleeing northern Iraq.
“He had the gift of empathy,” said Dick Swanson, a former Life magazine photographer who served in Saigon with Mr. Snead during the late 1960s when the war in Vietnam was at its fiercest. “His photography was people . . . their joys, their sorrows.”
A 1991 photo of a young Albanian girl, wide-eyed, wistful and teary, staring through a clouded bus window during a heavy thunderstorm in Tirana, the capital, was Mr. Snead’s favorite. “When I moved closer to the bus she turned away crying,” he wrote, adding that he “was with a group of Westerners who were among the first foreigners allowed in the country since World War II.”
Other images he highlighted on his Web page included a strip searching of inmates at the D.C. Jail, a young boxer and his coach climbing into an improvised ring in Northeast Washington, a naked baby sitting on a potty in Colombia, a West Virginia snake handler with five rattlesnakes, Mother Teresa standing on a box to reach the podium for an address in Washington, a Ku Klux Klan rally in rural Maryland, a West Virginia church revival service, and the two killers of the Clutter family in Kansas — murders that Truman Capote chronicled in his book, “In Cold Blood.”
“I fell in love with journalism and making pictures when I was 17 and a Lawrence High School senior,” Mr. Snead wrote on his Web page. “My good fortune began when I was hired by the Journal World’s photo-boss-from-Hell, Rich Clarkson. I worked for him nine years in Lawrence and Topeka. . . . ‘That’s good enough,’ was not in his vocabulary. His emotional kicks in the [butt] gave me a head start in a trade that I care for as much today as I did a hundred years ago.”
Although foremost a photographer, Mr. Snead was also a writer. In a 1990 story in the Health section of The Washington Post, he described his struggles with alcoholism and a rare form of cancer, hairy cell leukemia.
“Dying or the threat of dying is not novel to me,” he wrote. “There were years when I didn’t think I’d live to be 30. . . . I remember all the years I was drinking and all the times I prayed not to wake up in the morning. . . . I remember the vague symptoms of malaise and the fatigue that led to my first diagnosis of cancer nearly 10 years ago.”
In 1982, Mr. Snead’s cancer was treated by surgery. His 10-pound spleen was removed and his cancer went into remission for seven years. But he “went a little crazy and started drinking with a vengeance. My two grown children . . . watched me fall apart. In 1987 they took me to the Betty Ford Center in California where I spent 28 days in treatment for alcoholism. I stopped drinking and started going to [Alcoholics Anonymous] meetings.”
Soon after, his cancer returned. It was treated successfully with an experimental intravenous drug.
Charles William Snead was born in Topeka, Kan., on Oct. 27, 1937, and grew up in Lawrence. His father was a firefighter and his mother was a nurse.
He was director of photography for the Wilmington (Del.) News Journal from 1964 to 1967, when he was hired as bureau manager for the United Press International wire service in Saigon during the Vietnam War. The Delaware paper had sent him to the war zone for a brief stint in 1965. His time in Vietnam coincided with the 1968 Tet Offensive, in which tens of thousands of North Vietnamese troops attacked South Vietnamese cities and extended the war.
He was a photographer and editor at National Geographic before joining The Post in 1972 as a photographer and chief of the newspaper’s photo and graphics department.
His first marriage, to Susan Campbell, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 23 years, Dona Jones Snead of Lawrence; two children from his first marriage, Mark W. Snead and Sally A. Snead, both of Arlington, Va.; and two grandchildren.
For several months before he died, Mr. Snead had known that death was imminent. Doctors had told him he did not have long to live. He told a friend, according to the Journal World, that he lived the life “of a lucky man,” with “fewer regrets than I probably should have.”
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