The Gainesville Red Elephant community has lost the voice of a local legend called the school’s biggest fan.
Walter Candler “Walt” Snelling, the voice of Red Elephants athletics for more than three decades, died Wednesday, March 28, at Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville. He was 81.
“Out of my 38 years at Gainesville High School, he’s the No. 1 Red Elephant fan of all-time,” said Wayne Vickery, a former Gainesville coach and athletic director and close friend of Snelling. “I don’t know of anyone else who has done more than what Walt Snelling has done for this community. It was phenomenal what he brought to the table.”
Ask anyone in Gainesville about Friday nights at City Park Stadium, and Snelling’s name will enter the conversation.
From the early 1980s until 2014, Snelling was the man behind the microphone for the Red Elephants. He called football, baseball, basketball and occasionally other sports. He took part in a number of school milestones, including the baseball program’s back-to-back state championships in 2001-2002.
Without hesitation, he could recite the best seasons in the football program’s history and even recount his most memorable game at Bobby Gruhn Field, when the Red Elephants defeated Avondale in 1959.
Vickery marveled over Snelling’s stamina, evident in blistering cold temperatures outdoors or long evenings spent inside the gymnasium.
“In basketball, he sat right there at our scorer’s table and be our PA guy for four-straight games — and I’m talking about from 4 o’clock in the afternoon to 10:30 at night,” he said. “That’s a long time to sit there.”
Snelling decided to step down in 2014 due to ailing health.
“I spent a lot of time wearing the red. I know that, and I loved every minute of it,” he said at the time.
Vickery said he was “one of a kind,” often complimenting players from both teams over the loudspeaker. Even if the audience wasn’t always appreciative of Snelling’s style, it never phased him.
“You won’t find very many PA guys to do that. I think that’s what set Walt apart from other guys,” Vickery said. “He bragged on an opponent, just as much as he bragged on the Gainesville High kids. That’s just the kind of guy he was.
“He made them special. I think you can talk to the opposing fan base and they would tell you the same thing. Walt was not a homer, by any means.”
In a September 2014 interview, Snelling said the kids were the best thing about announcing the games.
“I love children,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about. It’s very important for the youngsters to hear their names called, because that might be the only time they get to.”
Astonishingly, there was more to the man’s legacy than his presence in Gainesville sports. Aside from his unique presence in the press box and vast knowledge of high school football, Snelling had a positive influence on local youth. Vickery said he would give the shirt on his back or his last dollar to any youngster in need.
“Kids have kept me here. I love them,” said Snelling in a 2012 interview. “They’re smarter than I am and they’re better looking than I am. They’re our future, and without them, we’re in a heap of trouble.”
Snelling built lasting relationships with the many students at Gainesville High, and made sure newcomers felt at home.
“I didn’t grow up in Gainesville, moved there when I was a freshman in high school,” said Victor Menocal, a 1998 Gainesville graduate and star athlete. “You know, Walt did a great job of welcoming me to the city of Gainesville, to Gainesville High School and just more importantly, made me feel comfortable and my family feel comfortable about being there, moving from a different state.”
As a former offensive linemen and 1955 graduate of the high school, Snelling had Gainesville red coursing through his veins. His undying passion for Georgia Tech was just as apparent, and he sported Yellow Jacket paraphernalia on most game days.
“He used to wear that Georgia Tech hat, whether they were 10-and-0 or 0-and-10,” Vickery said. “I would be surprised if he’s not buried with a Georgia Tech hat or Georgia Tech coat on.”
Menocal was a four-year standout for the Red Elephants baseball team (1995-1998) and went on to have a successful college career as a four-year letter winner for Georgia Tech in the early 2000s. He said he shared a special bond with Snelling in cheering on their Yellow Jackets. Menocal was once warned by Snelling to stay on his toes around Georgia diehards like Vickery.
“We’d always talk about them Yellow Jackets a lot,” recalled Menocal, now a sports agent for Excel Sports Management.
Though Vickery and Snelling rooted for rival college teams, the two friends always met in the middle at their favorite local eateries of Longstreet Cafe and Inn Between Deli, across from City Park Stadium.
Yet the “clean, old-fashioned hate” still occasionally reared its head. Vickery recalled in 1990, when the Yellow Jackets split a national title with Colorado, his inner Bulldog got the best of him one day while on a ski trip out west. He purchased a T-shirt of the co-national champion Buffaloes from a gift shop and gave the shirt to Snelling when he returned.
Snelling, of course, was not too fond of the gesture.
“You probably couldn’t print the four-lettered words he’d say about that shirt,” Vickery said with a laugh.
Born Nov. 11, 1936, in Auburn, Ga., Snelling became part of Red Elephant Nation after his family moved to Gainesville from Jefferson when he was age 6. From then, he developed his fandom for Gainesville High sports.
Snelling graduated from then-North Georgia College and served in the U.S. Army before becoming Gainesville’s parks and recreation director. Later, he was part of the fuel business. During that span, he found the booth.
“He will truly be missed, I guarantee it,” Vickery said.
Snelling is survived by his wife, Carol, two sons Mike and John, and daughter Sally Jackson.
Visitation is set for 9-11 a.m. Saturday in the Fellowship Hall of First Baptist Church in Gainesville with the funeral to immediately follow. Burial will be held at Alta Vista Cemetery. Memorial Park North Funeral Home Riverside Chapel is handling the arrangements.
Staff reporter Jeff Gill contributed to this story.