One of Mercer University's most accomplished graduates, the man known by many as “Sambo,” died earlier today at the age of 90. Dr. Ferrol A. Sams Jr. penned eight books, including a trilogy of works featuring Porter Osborne Jr., a character largely based on Dr. Sams' own Georgia boyhood in Fayette County. All of his works are rooted in the oral traditions of Southern humor and folklore, and his novel,
The Whisper of the River, to this day is used in the classrooms at Mercer.
“Sambo was an amazing man and a great Mercerian,” said Mercer President William D. Underwood. “Generations have been inspired by the accounts of his exploits while at Mercer in The Whisper of the River. He will be missed.”
Dr. Sams was born in Woolsey, Ga., on Sept. 26, 1922, and earned his bachelor's degree in 1942 at Mercer and his Doctor of Medicine at Emory University Medical School in 1949.
Dr. Sams served on the Mercer Board of Trustees from 1992-1997. He delivered the commencement address to the Mercer School of Medicine in 2010. To honor Dr. Sams, Mercer established the Ferrol A. Sams Jr. Distinguished Chair of English in 1993 to bring a nationally prominent fiction writer, poet or dramatist to Mercer each spring to teach creative writing and highlight the literary arts. In addition, Mercer University Press annually gives the Ferrol Sams Award for Fiction to the best manuscript that speaks to the human condition in a Southern context. The Jennifer Sams Endowed Memorial Scholarship Fund was also established in memory of his granddaughter.
“Sambo will always be a Mercer legend — in the pantheon of the greats,” said David E. Hudson, chair of the University's Board of Trustees.
During his medical career, Dr. Sams and his wife, Helen, were in private practice together in Fayetteville and, in 1987, they established the Fayette Medical Center. He embarked on a writing career at age 60 and captured a national audience of readers with his witty, affectionate portraits of life between the world wars in Georgia, of what he has called “being raised right” in the rural South.
The trilogy begins with the work Run with the Horsemen, published in 1982. This novel, as with much of Dr. Sams' work, is told from a first-person perspective, and the plot closely parallels the life of its author. The novel centers around a young prankster born in rural depression-era Georgia. Dr. Sams recounts his childhood through the voice of Porter Osborne Jr. (Dr. Sams' own great-grandfather was named Porter), who is given the nickname “Sambo,” a name that had been given to Dr. Sams as a young farm boy born into a similar rural setting. The novel was warmly received by critics and the public, encouraging Dr. Sams to continue the tales of Porter as he left the farm and headed to the university in The Whisper of the River. Porter's journey to “Willingham University” parallels Dr. Sams' own education at Mercer.
Dr. Sams completed the trilogy in 1991 with the publication ofWhen All the World Was Young, in which Dr. Sams' picaresque hero experiences World War II overseas as an Army surgical assistant.
Dr. Sams' other works includeThe Widow's Mite and Other Stories (1987), a collection of eight first-person stories that highlight the social problems of a small Southern town, andEpiphany(1994), a volume of three philosophical novellas. His nonfiction books includeThe Passing: Perspectives of Rural America (1988), which comprises 16 vignettes about vanished ways of rural life, andChristmas Gift!(1989), an account of one family's celebration of Christmas in Fayette County. In 2007, Mercer University Press published Dr. Sams' novel,Down Town: The Journal of James Aloysius Holcombe Jr. for Ephraim Holcombe Mookinfoos, a fictionalized chronicle of Fayette County and the origin of Peachtree City, told as a multigenerational family story that spans a century and a half from Reconstruction through the present.
A natural storyteller whose works made him a popular writer in the South and garnered favorable national attention, Dr. Sams was honored in 2001 for 50 years of commitment and service to the people of Fayette County. The Whisper of the Riverwon the Townsend Prize for Fiction that year and was performed in 1992 for American Public Radio's Radio Reader. In 2006,Run with the Horsemenwas selected by Atlantans as the inaugural text in the Atlanta Reads: One Book, One Community program. Dr. Sams received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Georgia Writers Association in 2012.