Ferrol Sams 1922-2013: Conversations with ‘Sambo,’ a true Southern author



I have interviewed a few truly famous authors in my time. South Africa’s Athol Fugard is one. Playwright August Wilson is another.

But the only famous author I can say that I truly knew was Dr. Ferrol Sams of Fayetteville. I got to know him as a newspaper man in the county seat of Fayette County. I was editor of the now defunct Fayette Sun, and you were not much of a news man if you didn’t bump up against “Sambo” more than a few times in Fayette County.

Sambo was the good doctor’s nickname from childhood, and it stuck, as mostly happens to folks who are born, live and die all in the same town. Almost everybody called him Sambo (I called him Dr. Sams), because 1) he was not pretentious in any way, and 2) he was such a genuine article. He truly liked people, and was pleased to be liked by others.

He led a most remarkable life. He grew up in the agricultural South before World War II. That is to say it was closer in many ways to 1840 than 1940. He and his wife Helen, also a doctor, (they met in Emory University Medical School, just like in the movies) settled down after the war to make their clinic the closest thing to a hospital Fayette County had.

That is how I first met Dr. Sams. When I came to Fayetteville in the 1980s, this county of 60,000 people had no hospital. It was a fast-growing suburban county by then. Peachtree City had sprung up just a few miles down Ga. 54 and was as cosmopolitan as any brand-new city could be.

It’s still the city of golf carts.

But they had no hospital in those days because of the arcane “certificate of need” (CON) process then in place in Georgia. The idea was that it was not good for hospitals to compete, so any new hospital needed a CON to show that it would not hurt any other hospital within, oh, let’s just say 50 miles.

Any CON in those days was immediately faced with a good half-dozen lawsuits – all filed by hospitals that wanted no kind of hospital that would in the least way impinge on their well-insured patients who might decide a 30-mile trip into Atlanta was not worth passing up a local hospital down the street – especially if they had just had a heart attack.

Well, you get the picture. Dr. Sams was one of the many community leaders who were fighting in the courts and at the Legislature for some sane solution that would give them a hospital.

That was my first big story in Fayetteville, and I must say when the courts finally granted the CON, every hospital that argued there was no need for one in Fayette County was there to file their own application to build their own – well respected institutions of healing, every one, but as hypocritical a TV evangelist.

So that is how I got to know Dr. Sams, which is as familiar as I got with him. But I also got to know him as an author. Somewhere north of 50, Dr. Sams decided to put pen to paper and write what was to become his trilogy of growing up Southern. They are “Run with the Horsemen” (1984); “The Whisper of the River” (1986); and “When All the World Was Young” (1992). I had it on good authority that the books were loosely autobiographical.

When he writes about plowing his father’s field with a mule, he writes with the conviction of one who has done it. And if you read the opening chapter of “Run with the Horsemen,” you will never think of plowing behind a mule in quite the same way.

The director of the Fayette County Historical Society told me that the people of Fayetteville could tell you who the “real” characters were portrayed in his books. Except that they would not tell you unless you were born in Fayette County, because if you weren’t born in Fayette, “Sambo’s” books were not to be shared.

She told me she moved to Fayette County with her husband “only” 30 years ago, and thus native county folk would never confirm a suspicion for her.

What discomfited me about Dr. Sams was that he put the lie to all my reasons for never sitting down to write a book. In fact, I asked him how he found the time to write a novel (ultimately nine books and short story collections).

When he was writing, he would arise at 3 a.m. and write until 7 a.m. Then he would have breakfast and go to work.

See? It’s really easy to find the time, I just never thought about it hard enough. There is more to it of course.

In his obituary in the New York Times, it quoted the paper’s book reviewer who said, “The writing is elegant, reflective and amused. Mr. Sams is a storyteller sure of his audience, in no particular hurry and gifted with perfect timing.”

I recommend his books. It is time I plowed those fields again myself as I am of an age when re-reading is very much like first-reading.

I had many conversations with Dr. Sams in the three short years I spent there. I treasured those moments, especially when we weren’t talking local politics. If I was smart, I just kept my mouth shut and listened. Wish I’d said less.

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