Sometime in the early morning hours on Tuesday, Fayette County lost a legend when Dr. Ferrol A. Sams Jr. passed away at the age of 90.
One of four children, Sams was born in 1922 in the same house built by his great-grandfather in 1848 to Mildred Matthews and Ferrol Sams Sr., who was the Fayette County school superintendent at the time and who nicknamed his son “Sambo,” It was an appellation that would be used often and fondly by Fayette residents when referring to one of their own.
The family can trace their roots back six generations in Fayette County.
Sams graduated from Mercer University in Macon in 1942 and attended Emory University School for medicine for a brief time before joining the U.S. Army Medical Corps, where he served from 1943 to 1947, seeing action in France.
He returned to Emory and received his medical degree in 1949. It was while he was at Emory that he met future wife, fellow physician Helen Fletcher. The couple married in July 1948, and opened a private practice together in Fayetteville in 1951, providing medical care to their community while they raised four children. In 1987, the couple established the Fayette Medical Center.
In 1982, at age 60, Sams published his first novel Run With the Horsemen, the first of three semi-autobiographical adventures for his antihero literary counterpart Porter “Sambo” Osborne, Jr. He captured a national audience with his portrayals of life in rural Georgia at the time between World Wars.
The second installment came in 1984 with The Whisper of the River and the trilogy was completed in 1991 with When All the World Was Young. The ongoing tale follows Osborne as he comes of age in the rural South, goes to war and aspires to a medical career.
Lauded as one of the south’s great writers, his prose doesn’t capture what the nation believed to be the traditional southern lyrical style of Gone With the Wind or the seamier, darker prose of a Tobacco Road. In fact, his tales, while seemingly innocent and meandering, instilled old-fashioned conscience and morality without preaching in a charmingly witty manner.
Sams also became an instructor of creative writing at Emory University in 1991.
He was honored in 2001 for fifty years of commitment and service to the people of Fayette County. In 2007 Sams was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame, and in 2012 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Georgia Writers Association.
He was more than a writer or physician, though. A man with a quick sense of humor, a prediliction for pranks, and the lodestone of a large, extended family that has produced physicians, teachers, lawyers and judges. And he was, by unanimous consent, a strong, steadfast and loyal friend.
Brooks Mayor Dan Langford, whose longtime Fayette County roots intertwine with the Sams family over the last six generations, called Sams “my dear and special friend,” quoting Antony’s comments about Brutus in Julius Ceasar.
“‘His life was gentle; and the elements so mixed up in him that all Nature might stand up and say to all the world, ‘This was a man!’ I guess everybody who ever knew him thought that too.”
Langford’s great aunt Ara Stinchcomb Callaway called Sams a “great friend and a great doctor.”
“Of course, our families go way back,” said Sam Burch. “My uncle Ambrose Burch was his best friend and he was great friends with my Uncle Robert [Burch- another legendary Georgia writer].”
If he had to describe Sams in a few words, Burch said, it would be “a true friend.
“It was unconditional. He was a neat man. He didn’t sugarcoat anything, but he was a true friend who told you how things really were.”
Other terms used were father/mentor to many people.
“There are so many words to describe him. He was a true southern gentlemen with a quirky sense of humor and he truly cared about everyone.”
Burch, like most people who talked about Sams passing, seemed to be caught on the cusp between laughter and tears. There is sadness at the passing of a great friend and part of the family and genuine affection and humor at remembering Sams long life.
Burch remembered when Sams was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame.
“He told Uncle Robert that it should have been him inducted first. And the next year, Sambo saw to it.”
Unfortunately, Robert Burch didn’t live to receive his award and his nephew accepted it on his behalf.
“Sambo introduced me and Robert. I told them, when I got out there, that Ferrol Sams is a hard act to folow. I’m a singer; not a public speaker. He offered to write me a little jingle to sing when I accepted the award. Fortunately, I turned him down.”
Fayette County Historian Carolyn Cary, who has known Sams for 47 years, said he was always “upfront. He wouldn’t lie.”
“He was just a great guy,” said Burch.
The funeral service has been scheduled for Friday, February 1 at 4 p.m. at the Fayetteville First United Methodist Church at 175 E. Lanier Avenue. Visitation will be held on Thursday, Janaury 31 between 2 and 4 p.m. at the C.J. Mowell funeral home’s Fayetteville chapter at 180 N. Jeff Davis Drive. Memorial Donations may be made to the Joseph Sams School. The school is located at 280 Brandywine Boulevard in Fayetteville (www.josephsamsschool.org).