At Bridgewater College, a small Brethern school in the Shenandoah Valley, there wasn't a lot to do besides study. There was a curfew. And no drinking (at least none that any administrator knew about.) About the most exciting place on campus was the snack bar. And that's where, some 60 years ago, senior Carey Snyder met freshman Mary Lynn Parrett.
Looking back, Carey says the day was fateful: “I don’t know what would have happened to me if we hadn’t found each other.” In the years that followed, the couple married, built a family and worked hard to build a comfortable life with careers in social work and real estate. For Mary Lynn, the hard work was rooted in a tough childhood that taught her the importance of perseverance. “Don’t ever give up on anything,” she says. “Don’t ever be defeated.”
Born in Waynesboro, Va., to Ray Lynn Parrett and Margaret (Sheets) Parrett on Jan. 24, 1941, Mary Lynn spent the first months of her life in a brick house on her father’s farm in the Shenandoah Valley. The marriage didn’t last. When Mary Lynn was about nine months old, she and her mother went to live with Margaret’s parents in nearby Mt. Sidney. They stayed until Margaret’s mother died a few years later. Mary Lynn's mother was a teacher and she managed to find work in Virginia’s Fairfax County.
She and Mary Lynn went to live in an attic apartment on Quaker Lane in Alexandria. Mary Lynn was often sick while in that apartment, but her earliest memories are good ones because of a kind, elderly couple who lived there and often did nice little things for both Margaret and Mary Lynn. Mary Lynn and her mom moved around a lot, sometimes living in Annandale or Falls Church.
Mary Lynn remembers that they got kicked out of one place because she jumped off the bed down on to the floor, causing a racket. Money was always tight, and Mary Lynn and Margaret once lived in their car for three or four weeks. Another time, they slept on the tables at an elementary school where Margaret was teaching. Mary Lynn thinks the principal must have taken pity on them that night.
When Margaret needed to finish her college degree to keep teaching, she began taking Mary Lynn every summer to Harrisonburg, Va. They would board at one of the houses while Margaret attended classes at Madison College (now James Madison University) until she graduated Phi Beta Kappa.
“She was a single mom all this time doing this and earning a living,” Mary Lynn marvels. “She was a first-grade teacher and she could teach a rock to read. She was fantastic.”
Margaret so impressed school officials that they made her principal of a new elementary school called Weyanoke. Unfortunately, the job wouldn’t last more than a year because during this time Margaret met a man who would become Mary Lynn’s stepfather. He turned out to be a swindler and took what little money Margaret had saved, leaving her broke and pregnant.
With 12-year-old Mary Lynn and a new baby on the way, Margaret had no choice but to go back to the Shenandoah Valley in 1953. Mary Lynn’s sister, Barbara, arrived and the family of three lived in a tiny apartment over a grocery store. The owner would let Margaret charge groceries because sometimes all she had was a dime to her name. Mary Lynn thinks Margaret’s brothers must have helped her out during this time. And she’s sure they got paid back in full.
When Barbie was old enough, Margaret went back to teaching. And a lady from the church who had an empty house let the family use it. There was no heat, no running water and no appliances. They went outside to a cistern to get water and to use the outhouse. For heat, they would carry in buckets of coal that had been dumped in their driveway. When their old beater of a car would break down, Margaret or Mary Lynn would have to walk two or three miles to find a telephone to call someone to come fix it.
But they made the best of it; Margaret tilled a huge garden and they got a potbelly stove and a refrigerator. “It was hard times, but I don’t look back on it as a sad time,” Mary Lynn says. “I look back on it as making me what I am today.”
During that time, Mary Lynn saw her father more often. Ray would come and sit in the house and Mary Lynn would be expected to make small talk with him. She can’t stand small talk, which she refers to as “garbage” that simply fills up the air. “I hate it to this day,” she says.
Mary Lynn attended Wilson Memorial High School in Fisherville. In the school’s yearbook, she’s pictured as part of the Future Teachers of America and listed as a literary editor. She also played the flute. But she remembers the local Lutheran church as her main outlet for socializing as a teenager. Somehow, when she graduated, Margaret got enough money together to send Mary Lynn to Bridgewater College.
Mary Lynn was studying to be a secretary, about the only job she thought she could do as a woman in the ‘50s. She remembers the moment she met Carey there: “I kept talking, so I guess must have liked him.” Like Mary Lynn, Carey had spent the first part of his life in Virginia.
He was born on Dec. 15, 1932 to Minnie (Levisay) Snyder and Albert Snyder in Covington, a small town near the West Virginia border. He was a sickly baby, and the family didn’t think he would survive. “The story goes from my grandparents that they carried me around in a pillow and my mother called from the dental office where she worked every day to see if I was still alive,” Carey says. “I fooled them all and lived.”
Carey’s parents split up when he was still a baby, and he went to live with Minnie’s parents. He remembers that life was pretty good. His Grandpa Levisay owned a Ford Motor Co. business and Carey loved to play in the cars, earning the nickname “Gangster.” He played Cowboys and Indians with the local kids and enjoyed a nice swimming pool at his grandparents’ house. Minnie, meanwhile, got a job offer at a dental clinic in the Perry Point veterans’ hospital across the river from Havre de Grace, Md.
While she was working there, she met a guard at the gate named William Fletcher. They got married and sent for Carey to join them in 1941, when he was 9 years old. Around that time, Carey’s vision got extremely poor. He could see little more than the difference between daylight and dark. His parents took him to Union Memorial Hospital, where he saw a female doctor – very unusual for that time – who gave him a low dose of malaria. Within six weeks, he could see again. Not well, but at least passably. As he puts it, “I see a lot better than blind people.”
Minnie and William had two children together, Bill and Mary Lee. Carey remembers a lot of time playing with his siblings back in the strawberry and raspberry bushes that his stepfather grew. In high school, he played sports and was a fullback on the football team. During the summer, he worked for a local contractor, digging cesspool holes and dry wells. Carey was a little behind in high school and he came to the attention of the U.S. Army, which drafted him into service as he was still finishing up.
In 1953, his high school class was collecting their diplomas while he was graduating from basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. His principal gave him some leeway with English credits to allow Carey to get his diploma as well.
Carey’s vision was still so poor that he probably shouldn’t have been drafted.
He remembers one time during basic training when his eyes stayed dilated for two or three days after an eye exam. He got placed in the front of a boat for a training maneuver across the river and was in charge of securing the boat. He couldn’t see a thing and ended up jumping straight into the water, managing only to hold on because of a lucky root. After crawling up on shore, he was lying down recovering when a flare rolled right into him. He kicked it in the water and it somehow ended up underneath the boat. The men came back, and they started across the river in a boat that was now for all intents and purposes a big ball of smoke. When they arrived at the other side, the officer in charge of the maneuver was getting ready to give Carey a hard time, likely questioning how he had managed to set a metal boat afire.
That's when the commander came down to congratulate Carey for having the best camouflaged boat in the simulated assault. Instead of a chewing-out, Carey got a three-day pass to St. Louis. Carey sees that story as a theme in his life.
“My life has just been lucky,” he says. “I just happened to fall into the right things at the right time.” He was on track to be sent overseas, but his stepfather suffered a heart attack, so the Army gave him a deferment and let him serve at Fort Meade in Maryland. His commander, who didn’t like the fact that Carey was getting off the hook for foreign service, sent him to "cook school."
But the company commander there was more sympathetic, and Carey was able to get a pass home when not on duty. When he was on duty, he liked making cakes and pies. Carey got out of the Army in 1955 and got a letter from his cousin, Pat, who was going to a little college in Virginia called Bridgewater. Since Carey didn’t have a job, Pat suggested he come to the school and play football. So that’s what he did.
Carey graduated from Bridgewater in 1959 with a degree in physical education and a new girlfriend. While Mary Lynn still had a few more years of school, Carey heard that the Maryland Training School for Boys, a facility for delinquent kids in Baltimore, might be hiring. The superintendent said he didn’t need any PE teachers, but he could use a social worker. “I said, what is that?” Carey remembers. “And he said, it doesn’t make any difference, do you want the job? And I said, yeah, I need a job. I’ll take the job.”
Eventually, he needed to get a master’s degree in social work to keep the job and he started at the University of Pennsylvania, finishing up at Howard University after running out of money for Penn. He can’t remember if there were any other white students at the historically black university in Washington, D.C., but he does remember enjoying it and liking the teachers immensely.
Social work also suited him. A self-described “class clown,” Carey found that using laughter in therapy is incredibly helpful. “You’ve got to learn to laugh at things that hurt,” he says. “You’ve got to see things a different way if you’re going to change.” Carey and Mary Lynn continued to date off and on while she remained at school. After she graduated, she went to California to stay with her Aunt Catherine and Uncle Jimmy, who was stationed in Oakland with the Army.
She worked for a company on the docks and then decided – at Catherine and Jimmy’s urging – to go the Lutheran Deaconess Motherhouse and Training School in Baltimore. After two years of training, she was qualified to work in a church. But she got married instead. As Carey remembers it, Mary Lynn “laid the law down” in a little bar in Towson, Md. She said the time had come to get married or break up. He knew she meant it, and he wasn’t about to let her get away.
The two married on June 1, 1963, at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Aberdeen, Maryland. They decided to start a family right away. Laura Lynn arrived in April 1964 and Carey Alan was born in July 1966.
When Laura was born, the family lived in a little apartment in Baltimore where they had to go across the hall to use the bathroom. Their life changed when Mary Lynn’s father died in 1966, soon after Alan was born. He left Mary Lynn $16,000, enough to buy a family home and to start purchasing rental properties, which Mary Lynn and Carey would do for years.
At one point, they bought a rooming house, and Mary Lynn would take the kids with her as she cleaned the rooms and changed the sheets once a week. The family moved to Havre de Grace in 1967, finding a home where they could pay a mortgage of $126.72 a month. They lived in that house for 35 years. Mary Lynn’s mother, Margaret, lived nearby and helped with the kids.
As always, she proved a good teacher. Alan, it turns out, was mildly dyslexic and Margaret caught that he wasn’t learning to read properly in first grade. “In six weeks, she had fixed that,” Mary Lynn says. Though Carey had been a cook in the Army, it was Mary Lynn who commanded the kitchen at home. Mary Lynn remembers the kids would go out the door early in the morning and not come back until late in the evening, or whenever they were hungry. As a mom, Mary Lynn was “top drawer,” Carey says. “Look how well they turned out, and most of it’s been her.”
There weren’t a lot of frills for the kids growing up, but Carey remembers trips to Ocean City and Disneyland in California. And in the early 1970s, the family bought a cottage about 10 minutes away in Charlestown on the river. They went whenever they got a chance. Carey had a couple different jobs – at a state hospital and working on a schizophrenia project for the NIH – before landing at Harford County’s mental health department. The county job meant being close to his home of Havre de Grace. He would stay there the rest of his career, retiring in 1991.
Mary Lynn stayed home with the kids until Alan was in 3rd grade, but she knew that she wanted to work. She started out substitute teaching, which she loved. But doing it full time would have required more schooling, and she wasn’t interested in that. Instead, she decided to get her real estate license. In her first year, 1975, she sold $1 million. It took 22 properties to do that back then. Mary Lynn has two hobbies nowadays. Reading mystery novels – and working. A point of pride recently was getting a house built from start to finish on her own. She found the lot, designed the house and oversaw all the contractors. She got the whole thing done in 120 days and on July 23, she and Carey moved in.
They will stay for two years and sell it as they get ready for the next stage in their life. Carey, on the other hand, was more than ready to retire, joking that he’s “basically lazy.” He enjoys his two cigars a week and his scooter. At one time, instead of a scooter in the garage there would have been a Harley or a Honda Gold Wing. He’s been around the U.S. three times on a motorcycle and once across Canada. And he enjoys canoeing, fondly remembering a 3-day, 110-mile trip from Harrisburg, Pa., to Havre de Grace.
Both speak glowingly of their kids, their in-laws and their four grandsons and granddaughter. Laura and her husband, John, live in southern Maryland and Alan and his wife, Heidi, live in Vienna, Va. The grandkids are scattered around the country, with two set to graduate college one day apart this spring. The kids bought a house next door to the Charlestown cottage, and now there are many memories of big family holidays, with grandchildren and fried turkeys, even a roast pig once. As Carey says, “My greatest accomplishment would be my family, I’m sure.”