Monday, July 30, 2018

My Dad, the Snake Man - Part One



My dad, Chuck Naidl, and me in one of our earlier photos together. The facial expressions say it all.
My dad and I were very close for all of the 26 years that I got to be with him
until he passed away on July 30, 1984.

I periodically post photographs to Facebook of my late father, Roy Paul "Chuck" Naidl. Although small in stature (barely taller than 5'5"), he had a big mission. Dad was an intelligent and witty man, devoted husband and father, and passionate educator and lecturer who dedicated his professional life to helping people better understand reptiles, and consequently, decrease their fear through education and understanding. He was often referred to fondly as "the snake man."

Life with Dad was such a joyful adventure that people have been urging me to write a book about him. Dad passed away 34 years ago, meaning that I have lived more of my life without my father's presence than with it. 


My father, Chuck Naidl, and me circa 1970.
As an only child, I had the pleasure of enjoying a delightful, mutually respectful relationship
with both of my parents.

As I become reacquainted with the memories of my growing-up years by putting them on paper (digitally), I thought I would first write a series of monthly blog posts, titled My Dad, the Snake Man, in tribute to him. (Many thanks to my friend, Charlene, for affirming the title.). Then, we'll see if there's a book in me for all of this storytelling.

I begin the five-part monthly series of posts with this one on July 30, the anniversary of my father's passing. The subsequent posts will be published at 9:00 a.m. central time on August 21, September 13, October 2 and November 21. That final post in the series will be published on Dad's 100th birthday.

Each of these posts will move backward through my father's life, beginning with his death and ending with his birth.


My dad with a tarantula, one of the many beings who he respectfully cared for
and included in his educational presentations in schools across the United States.

I will make every effort to be accurate with any factual details, but admittedly, this series of posts will be a loving tribute to my father more than anything -- a rambling of reminiscences, much of it through the filters of my childhood memory and perspective. 

While known across the United States as "the snake man," Chuck Naidl was first and foremost for me, simply Dad.



An early business card of Dad's on the left, as well as
a complimentary ticket to our family's reptile farm, at right.

This chapter of the story begins in May of 1976. I had graduated a semester early from high school to begin my college experience. As I was getting ready to begin my final exams on campus, my mother received a telephone call that Dad had collapsed while entering a school in Winneconne, Wisconsin where he was to present his program about the value and virtues of reptiles in the ecosystem. Mom and I dropped everything, drove to the Mercy Medical Center in Oshkosh, only to find him in the Intensive Care Unit. Dad had suffered a serious heart attack. 

Thankfully, he would recover, but only after being hospitalized for about a month and then suffering a relapse shortly after he was discharged home to Baraboo, Wisconsin. 

Dad eventually spent time at home healing and growing stronger again. He was even able to resume his school lecture tours with time, but only on a limited basis and primarily with my mother accompanying him. Mom, a registered nurse, took time off from her work as an in-service education director at a skilled nursing facility and instructor of certified nursing assistants in order to accompany Dad on short lecture tours. They traveled by automobile together. Mom and Dad would continue the abridged lecture circuit for only a couple more years. Dad, then, divested himself of many of the reptiles, leaving only a few of his prized snakes and turtles to remain under his care at our home.


Dad's interests weren't restricted to snakes. Here he is with a mature snapping turtle.

We celebrated Dad's recovery from his devastating health event, but the road wasn't entirely easy. After an additional hospitalization for congestive heart failure a few years later, Dad began to not feel well early in the summer of 1984. On July 30th of that year, my mother and I arrived home to find that Dad had collapsed and died of another cardiac event. He was 65 years old.


The newspaper notice at the time of Dad's passing on July 30, 1984.

Just a few weeks earlier, Dad had conveyed a premonition to me that he wouldn't live much longer. While waiting together in the local pharmacy to pick up a prescription one day, Dad mentioned out of the blue that he was glad there were videotapes of him so that his potential grandchildren would know what he looked and sounded like. I was taken aback at the time, but I came to have the same premonition myself, an overwhelming sadness that engulfed me during the 4th of July festivities that year. I somehow knew that they would be our last together.

Fortunately, Dad and I had the opportunity to enjoy one final father-daughter date about a month before he passed away. Whenever my mom would travel out of town to spend time with her parents, Dad and I would schedule a father-daughter date where we would go out to eat, listen to live music, select topics for philosophical discussion and simply enjoy each other's company. Dad was a voracious reader and a great conversationalist on a variety of topics, always making our conversations fun and interesting.


Dad made me this table for my second birthday and offered to share my birthday cake with me.

Although our final father-daughter date was able to take place, I didn't, however, get to treat Dad and Mom to breakfast one more time. The day before he died, Dad, Mom and I enjoyed an after-church breakfast together at one of our favorite local restaurants. As usual, he and I tugged at the bill when the server delivered it to our table. As Dad made the final and decisive grab for it, I offered that the next time, breakfast would be on me. Sadly, it wasn't to be.



This is how Dad always signed notes and cards to me.  Loved that little rattlesnake cartoon.

Dad passed away on a Monday. By Friday of that same week, we were holding his memorial service. On the morning of the service, Mom and I took a walk. We soon found ourselves accompanied by a butterfly that was insistent upon swirling and sweeping gently around us. Mom said that she felt the butterfly was a sign from Dad that all was well and that he would always be with us. To this day, when I see a butterfly flitting around me, I think of that morning walk decades ago, the wisdom of my mother during a time of such profound grief, and the reassurance that Dad is with me always.

That fall, we cast Dad's ashes in some of his favorite places for snake hunting throughout his beloved Baraboo Hills. It just seemed right that a part of him return to those breathtaking places that had drawn him to Baraboo so long ago.



Dad's ashes were scattered in some of his favorite snake-hunting spots throughout the Baraboo Hills.

After Dad's passing, Mom and I contacted a friend from a Chicago-based herpetological society who took the few reptiles Dad had left and sold them for us. Mom and I then prepared our home and reptile farm property for sale and listed it. By October, the sale was complete. 

Mom wasn't able to say goodbye to the place that had been called home for 35 years, that place that had been known simply as "the snake farm" to local residents. Mom was in the hospital, recovering from a second cancer surgery, when I walked through the house for the last time, wandered outdoors to look out over the Baraboo Hills, reminisced about the many remarkable experiences that had happened in my 26 years on those five acres, and locked the front door for the final time. Gone was the era of Chuck Naidl's Reptile Farm, but the memories would live on in our hearts.



Dad and me, enjoying the new swing he made for me in our backyard in 1962.
In the cement base, Dad had engraved my name and the year.

When Dad died, I lost my primary male role model, the man who was always there to make little tables and swing sets and draw cartoons for me; the man with whom I could discuss intellectual matters, solve problems, and spend time in quiet conversation. Dad wasn't one to toss advice around haphazardly. Rather, he quietly considered whatever issue I brought to him and thoughtfully provided me with his response, often engaging me to help solve my own dilemmas. 


My dad, Chuck Naidl, in a professional portrait taken by local photographer Ron Rich circa 1963.
It's not surprising that Dad would be holding his signature pipe.

Although Dad's years were cut short, the 65 years he did live were lived richly, passionately and in his own way. He was an educator at heart: patient, thorough, encouraging and inclusive. He traveled extensively, touching one life after another with his positive, affirming ecological message. 

A parade of journalists, photographers, college professors and students were constantly visiting our home and the reptile farm that Dad and Mom operated as an educational center for 35 years. With Dad's passing, those days were now over. I would like to believe that the knowledge he imparted continues to be passed along to others who, in turn, will continue to share that important message about reptiles with generations to come.


Dad, holding a Tegu lizard at our family's reptile farm.
My father's knowledge and wisdom on the subject of reptiles were sought regularly by
journalists, professors, authors, college students and more.

My father enjoyed an extraordinary career doing exactly what he loved to do -- being "the snake man." And I was lucky enough to be part of that amazing life.



One of my favorite pictures of Dad, always with a pipe and a smile.
A tattoo of a snake that he got while stationed with the US Army in the Mojave Desert during WWII
is peeking out of his shirtsleeve.

In next month's installment, posting on August 21 at 9:00 a.m. central time, I'll explore what it was like to grow up on a reptile farm. See you then.

14 comments:

  1. Fast forward to August 21st please, Im hooked!!!

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  2. I am thrilled when a photo of a snake is posted on one of the Devils Lake sites. It makes me feel, for a moment, that all is right with my world. A remarkable life well lived.

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    1. Thank you for sharing Dad's enthusiasm for reptiles!

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  3. Loved it! Now I can't wait for the next one! You are so talented, Keri!

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  4. Keri, as you know your dad was one of my childhood heros. It has always been a sadness of mine that I couldn’t have one of the snake your dad introduced to me. It makes my heart glad to see you memorialize your dad and the passion of his life’s work. Thank you.

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    1. Thank you so much for your kind words about Dad. I hope you will enjoy the next installments in this blog journey of his life.

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  5. Nancie Martz (Zimmerly)July 31, 2018 at 8:11 AM

    Growing up in Baraboo I always knew of your dad, but sadly never met him or visited the Reptile Farm. This is such a lovely tribute, and I look forward to learning more if this amazing man.

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    1. Thank you so much, Nancie. It is a joy to be able to pay tribute to him. Dad was such a wonderful man and father. Thanks again.

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