In the summer of 1969 Neil Armstrong left his footprint on the moon.
For ninety years, Dr. Ferrol A. Sams left his on Fayette County.
We all called him Sambo.
He died on Tuesday, January 29. When I heard the news, I wondered if anybody has ever meant as much to Fayette County as Sambo. I don’t think so.
His star would have been bright anywhere. After all, he landed at Normandy in World War II.That alone would qualify him as an icon.
He could have made a fortune in medicine in the big city.
Instead, he and his wife—we all call her Dr. Helen—came back to Sambo’s home. It was a little runt of a town called Fayetteville. It has never been the same since then.
Sambo and Dr. Helen started their clinic next to the Methodist Church. Through the years thousands of folks streamed through those doors. There is a special feeling you develop for the guy who cares for your sick mother, your injured child, your dying grandparent. Multiply that by tens of thousands and you begin to see why we all loved Sambo. That’s a big footprint.
But, Sambo didn’t stop there. He got himself elected to the city council. That is a thankless job. Sambo didn’t need the headache. But, he loved the town too much to watch the growing pains from the sidelines. He named just about all the streets in Fayetteville. Maybe you have noticed that they are named for Confederates. Maybe you also noticed that the shortest street in town is Long Avenue. That’s a taste of “Sambo irony.”
If you wanted to take a hike beside beautiful azaleas, you went to Sambo’s house. On Beauregard Boulevard, of course. Want a bird sanctuary? Fayette County has one, thanks to Sambo.
Guess who opened the first emergency room in Fayette County? Yep.
Maybe his greatest contribution to his hometown is his children. Doctors galore. And his son, Fletcher, served the Griffin Circuit as District Attorney before he built the Fayette County State Court from the ground up. Now he serves as Superior Court Judge.
If you didn’t know all of this about Sambo, I’ll bet you read his bestsellers. The first was “Run With the Horsemen.” He woke up every morning at four o’clock to write it before he saw patients all day long. Still, even as his writing gained him national fame, the books—fiction, he insisted—reminded old-timers of Fayette County. What you may not know is that he donated the royalties to a local school.
That school is now called “The Joseph Sams School.” It helps special needs children get a jump start in life. You see, Joseph Sams was Sambo’s grandson. When he was born with Down’s Syndrome, his parents, Jim and Marie Sams, could have sulked in self-pity. Instead, they began a school to help children like Joe. At first it was “The Early Years School” and was designed to take advantage of the fact that all children learn the fastest in the first three years of life. The idea was to use that window of intellectual prowess to help the learning disabled. When Joe’s life ended far too soon, the school was named after him. Countless children, who could have been written off as hopeless, have a chance in life because of the school.
Sambo would scoff at the notion that he left a big footprint in Fayette County. He would point, instead, to Joe’s footprint. I consider them one and the same.
We’ve lost Sambo, but his legacy is all over Fayette County.
Now, he’s leaving footprints in heaven. Joe, your granddaddy is home.