Army buddy recalls comic

Serving with Tim Conway

Paula Snyder, left, and John Snyder, right, of Howland pose for a photo with Tim Conway during a visit to California in 1999. Special to the Tribune Chronicle

HOWLAND — Most folks’ memories of Tim Conway involve the times he made them laugh on “The Carol Burnett Show,” “McHale’s Navy” or one of his other acting jobs.

John Snyder, who grew up in Warren, remembers the sweet assignment Conway helped him get when both served in the U.S. Army.

Conway died Tuesday at age 85, and Snyder shared stories about his friend during a conversation at his home on Saturday.

Both Snyder and Conway went through basic training at Fort Chaffee in Arkansas in 1956. They didn’t know each other, but they recognized each other when Snyder was sent to Fort Lewis in Washington before heading to Korea.

“We BS’d for a couple minutes,” Snyder said. “He was already stationed there and said, ‘Maybe I can get you a job here rather than do KP and stuff, until you get assigned.'”

Snyder started working with Conway in the Armed Forces Classifications and Assignment office and was given the option to stay instead of being deployed to the Far East. It was the start of a lifelong friendship.

“Fort Lewis had nothing to do with us,” Snyder said. “They couldn’t tell us to do anything. We had no guard duty, no KP. It was awful nice.”

Instead of sleeping in a large barracks, Snyder and Conway had their own rooms with a television above the office. They got to cut to the front of the line in the mess hall. And when it was raining, the colonel would let them drive his military vehicle over to the mess for lunch.

Back then, Snyder’s officemate was known as Tom Conway. He didn’t change his first name to Tim until he went to California in the early 1960s to avoid confusion with a British actor of the same name.

The two friends kicked in $150 each to buy a 1948 Pontiac that they would use to go fishing or drive to Seattle.

“We’d drive over to Spokane once in awhile to a place we’d go swimming,” Snyder said. “That was on the opposite end of the state. We’d drive over on a Saturday morning, sleep in the car Saturday night and drive back on Sunday.”

Snyder was discharged first and sold his half of the car to Conway, who drove it cross-country back home to Chagrin Falls when he was discharged a few months later.

“I think he sold it for 600 bucks,” Snyder said. “He made a little money off it.”

Conway would come down to Warren on occasion when he was working in Cleveland and visit Snyder. Once he left Cleveland for stardom in California, Snyder and his wife, Paula, would see Conway whenever he was performing in the area of visiting family in Chagrin Falls or when Snyder’s travels as a salesman for Packard Electric would take him to California.

“Every time he had a show, he’d have us backstage,” Paula Snyder said. “One time we met him in California for lunch. We pulled into the parking lot and that crazy thing was out in the middle of the lot waving his hands in the air.”

In the Army, Conway was a funny guy, Snyder said, but he wasn’t someone who seemed destined to become a beloved comedian who won six Emmy Awards in his career.

Conway knew a bandleader in Seattle and occasionally would do a comedy routine as part of the band’s show. Snyder never saw that act because the two alternated shifts working in the service club at Fort Lewis, so he was working when Conway had the night off.

“We had a lot of fun,” he said. “We weren’t real busy at the desk, so we did a lot of BSing with each other.”

Paula Snyder added, “I remember looking at him and just wanting to grin. He had this devilish look about him. He’d just stand there and smile and you had to smile back.”