Mercer alumnus and author Ferrol Sams dies at 90

jmink@macon.comJanuary 29, 2013 

When Ferrol “Sambo” Sams Jr. began his writing career at age 60, he based one of his most famous characters on his own childhood in Fayette County. Another book, “The Whisper of the River,” mirrors his experiences as a student at Mercer University.

Sams, a Mercer alumnus who wrote eight books and established the Fayette Medical Center in Fayetteville, died Tuesday at the age of 90.

“Sambo was an amazing man and a great Mercerian,” Mercer President Bill Underwood said in a news release. “Generations have been inspired by the accounts of his exploits while at Mercer in ‘The Whisper of the River.’ He will be missed.”

Sams was born in Woolsey on Sept. 26, 1922. In his later years, his writings would capture the moments of his youth and incorporate Southern traditions and humor. Sams earned his bachelor’s degree in 1942 at Mercer, where he later served on the Board of Trustees from 1992 to 1997. In 1993, Mercer established the Ferrol A. Sams Jr. Distinguished Chair of English, which brings a prominent writer to Mercer each spring to teach. Also, the Mercer University Press hands out the Ferrol Sams Award for Fiction each year. The guideline for the award is to write a piece that examines the human condition in a Southern context, something Sams became famous for, according to a news release.

But before his storytelling days, Sams earned his Doctor of Medicine at Emory University Medical School in 1949; he delivered the Mercer School of Medicine Commencement address in 2010. Sams and his wife, Helen, were in a joint private practice in Fayetteville when they decided to establish the Fayette Medical Center in 1987.

Sams told The Telegraph in 2007 that “when you practice medicine for enough years, you learn to listen with your eyes as well as your ears.”

But medicine was not his only gift. Sams captured national acclaim when he wrote a trilogy of tales that explored life in Georgia around the time of the two world wars. The first part of the trilogy, “Run with the Horsemen,” was published in 1982. The main character, a Depression-era prankster named Porter Osborne Jr., was modeled after Sams’ own childhood. The character is even nicknamed “Sambo,” according to a news release.

Sams went on to publish “The Whisper of the River” and finished the trilogy in 1991 with “When All the World Was Young.”

The books not only garnered awards and recognitions but further solidified his status as a prominent Mercer alumnus.

“Sambo will always be a Mercer legend -- in the pantheon of the greats,” David E. Hudson, chair of the University’s Board of Trustees, said in a news release.

Funeral services will be at 4 p.m. Friday at Fayetteville First United Methodist Church. Visitation is Thursday from 2-8 p.m. at the Carl J. Mowell & Son Funeral Home Chapel in Fayetteville.

Information from The Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer Jenna Mink, call 256-9751.

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