One of Madison’s best know street characters, Snowball came to Madison in the 1920s on a train. No one knew his age, where he came from, or if he had any relatives.
Snowball liked to chat with people. Little was ever really learned about him. Why he was nicknamed Snowball? He is best remembered wearing white boots, carrying a pail, a mop and a few shopping bags, his overalls crammed with pens. But in his early days he was known as a sharp dresser.
For a many years Snowball lived above the Greenbush neighborhood tavern owned by Zack and Maxine Trotter. He was a hard worker, construction when he was younger, later in life he became a fixture in downtown Madison, mostly State Street, washing windows, getting by day to day. The Wisconsin State Journal called him “The gentleman professor of philosophy and window washing”
When he rose in the early hours to wash windows, Snowball checked for broken glass and unlocked doors, and reported these to police. By the late 60s business hadn't been so good for him, many State Street merchants had boarded up their windows to protect them during Vietnam war protests.
In 1972, Snowball suffered a mild stroke and heart attack. Friends, many of them State Street merchants, pitched in and got Snowball into the Madison Convalescent Center. On the morning of October 11, 1975, Snowball died at the Methodist Hospital during an operation to remove his gall bladder. He reportedly was 73 but no one was sure. The Reverend Joseph Washington gave the eulogy. Washington said that after Riley's death, the funeral director at Joyce gave him 19 dollar bills. “What's this?” Washington said. He said John Riley had insisted they be given to the minister at his funeral.
Snowball is interred in Forest Hill Cemetery
. His friends Martin Albrecht and Kurt Pechmann, of Pechmann memorials, paid for the gravestone, which is engraved with Snowball's portrait.
A man named Muhamed Mousouf Aziz did a pen and ink drawing of Snowball that was turned into a postcard that sold 2,500 copies in the first three months of 1976.