Kerrying On

Sam’s Gift

Gifts come in all shapes, types, and sizes. Some arrive with the sounds and excitement of the holiday season and some do not. Some are beautifully packaged while others aren’t bundled at all because they’re completely intangible. Still others are not only intangible, but when they’re given away, the giver doesn’t even know he’s shared a gift. Imagine that—giving someone a present without knowing you’ve done so. Sounds odd, right? But you’ve done it yourself. Probably lots of times.

My first encounter with such a mysterious exchange took place in September of 1958 when I entered my seventh grade homeroom class for the first time and sat down next to Sam Baker. When our homeroom teacher called for the nomination of classroom officers, Sam raised his hand and eagerly nominated himself for the position of president. I was surprised. What kind of knucklehead nominates himself? Apparently Sam did, but to no benefit. He eventually lost to the immensely affable Caroline Stimpson.

A few minutes later, our teacher wrote his full name (Louie T. Lallas) on the chalkboard. Suspecting that it might be on the final, Dorothy Newman asked Mr. Lallas what the T stood for. Before the seasoned educator could bark his standard answer, “Tough!”, Sam shouted, “Tub-of-lard!”

The earth stood still. Insulting a teacher—and in front of the class—was unthinkable. Since he was mostly kidding (Mr. Lallas wasn’t the least bit tubish), Sam only had to suffer two days of detention. Nevertheless, he still had broken the granddaddy of all rules. He had disrespected an authority figure.

I immediately liked him.

Enough so that it was Sam who accompanied me a few weeks later when the two of us decided to take up tennis. We had become fast friends, and on this particular day, we were on our way to see if the tennis court located behind the Stimpson mansion was open to the public. Rumor had it that the venerable Dr. Stimpson generously allowed the unwashed masses to play on his private court as long as his family members weren’t using it. Sam and I were hoping the rumor was true and the court was open.

The two of us made a curious looking pair as we walked down Garden Street that day. Sam’s outfit included a snappy-looking racket and matching sweater and shorts. I wore frayed cut-off jeans and a hand-me-down T-shirt while carrying a warped wooden racket that once belonged to my grandfather—a racket that had been strung—not with shiny nylon—but with gnarled catgut. Mom assured me that no cats had been harmed in the construction of grandpa’s racket because the strings were made of (get this) sheep intestines. Like that made me feel better. One look at me and you’d have guessed Sam had invited a vagrant to play tennis with him.

As luck would have it, the Stimpson court was free so the two of us merrily hacked away until I saw the back door of the Stimpson’s lavish manor slowly open. Had we been characters in a movie, the background music would have turned ominous. In one quick move, out stepped Caroline, our homeroom class president and the youngest daughter of the good doctor Stimpson. I feared she was about to order us off the grounds and instinctively turned to flee when Sam smiled confidently and told me to wait.

“Hey, guys!” Caroline warmly greeted us. “Would you like to come inside for some lemonade?” I couldn’t believe it. The castle doors were opening.

When we walked into the Stimpson home, it was like entering a lavish movie set. Caroline escorted us into a room that showcased a spectacular hand-carved Brazilian rosewood pool table. Several hundred gilt-tooled, 19th-century, literary masterpieces lined the walls. I was speechless.

Caroline broke the silence by asking a maid dressed in a French embroidered pinafore apron to serve us lemonade. It turns out the “maid” was actually Caroline’s older sister, but we didn’t know it at the time. In any case, I was desperately trying to figure out how to fit into a world of posh tennis ensembles while wearing tattered cut-off jeans and a Mad Magazine T-shirt that had the phrase printed across the front: What, Me Worry?

I had seen swanky estates similar to the Stimpson’s before, but had never imagined what they might look like inside. The Stimpson home was remarkable. It was a place suitable for the Vanderbilts and Kennedys; a place for keen political debate; a place, I figured, I’d never lay eyes on again.

“What did you think of that?” Sam asked as we returned to the court. “It’s probably the coolest house in town.”

“It wasn’t a house,” I replied. “We live in houses. Caroline lives in a mansion.”

“Well, get over it,” Sam added. “One day, I’m going to own a place just like it.”

“How’s that?” I asked.

“Two years from now, when it’s offered, I’ll be taking Latin while you’re taking woodshop. And you know why that is?”

“Because you’re more interested in dead Italians than I am,” I replied.

“No,” Sam continued. “I’ll be studying Latin to prepare myself to go to law school so I can get a job with a big law firm, work my way to the top, and one day buy a beautiful home for my family—maybe even the Stimpson’s place.”

“You can do that? I asked.

“Yup,” Sam answered, “And so can you.”

“Just by taking Latin?”

It had never occurred to me that if I combined well-established plans with the right education and hard work, I could improve my station in life. For my first six years of schooling, my buddies and I had blindly stuck to a foreordained path that would eventually lead to a horrible education (i.e., we thought studying was for nerds) followed by a life of living hand-to-mouth. It was a cherished neighborhood tradition.

Sam, from his view farther up the hill, saw what he wanted from life and was in hot pursuit of a law degree. Better still, his vision and self-assurance were infectious. His brash belief that he could achieve anything he worked to accomplish altered my view of what was attainable—even to a scruffy kid carrying borrowed sheep intestines.

Sam moved to Alaska at the end of that school year, but not before he caused a substantial shift in my worldview. He didn’t lecture me, ridicule my mistakes, mock my naiveté, or act the least bit superior. Instead, Sam gave me the greatest of all gifts—the gift of hope. If the fun-loving kid who nominated himself for class president and daringly called a teacher a “tub-of-lard” could apply himself and become somebody, I could become somebody. No doubt Sam is unaware of the gift he gave me that autumn day on Garden Street. It wasn’t a holiday offering, it wasn’t tangible, and it certainly wasn’t wrapped. Nevertheless, when a new world opened its doors to me, it was Sam’s gift of hope that gave me the courage to cross the threshold.

Gratias Sam. Multas Gratias.

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Kerry Patterson

Cofounder of VitalSmarts, Kerry has coauthored four New York Times bestselling books as well as co-designed the company’s line of award-winning training programs. As author of our most popular column, Kerrying On, Kerry shares his vision, experience, and advice through fun and insightful stories from his past. read more

25 thoughts on “Sam’s Gift”

  1. Yes, sometimes (maybe through destiny) a good advice or example comes before us and if we are able to understand or emulate then it surely does shape up our lives.
    Do know of a person ,who is a billionaire now, he very much behaved or could dream of being a very big man, actually took some good Calculated risks and could reach great heights.

  2. Brilliant writing; great and inspiring story. I believe God speaks to us through others; it is up to us to HEAR the message and act upon it. Your story today is a great example of you hearing the message or at least remembering the message long enough to be able to hear, understand, and apply it later.

  3. Wonderful!!! So what has happened since? Have you reconnected with Sam. I would think you would want to share that life altering story with him. Its truly amazing!

    1. I sent Sam a copy. He remembered the events in pretty much the same way–except for the impact he had on me–of which he was unaware.

  4. Thanks for sharing….it just shows that we can learn something new everyday…we learn from others (good and bad) and then we can decide if it is good or bad

  5. What a wonderful story. So often times we never know the impact we have on people, be it positive or negative. I wonder if Sam went on to fulfill his dream. How great for all of us that he inspired you so we can all benefit from your knowledge and great story telling. Merry Christmas to you!

  6. I am now curious as to the path that Sam actually took. You may have one plan, but too many times in life it and God has another for you.

    Thank you for the article.

  7. Thanks so much for this article. Inspiring and hopeful. It makes me believe I can change my life now–even though I’m not a kid anymore.

  8. Inspiring story! I would love to know if you kept in touch with Sam and did he fulfill his dream of becoming a lawyer and owning a mansion? Isn’t it remarkable the difference a young child can make in another young child’s life!

  9. Kerry, I love your stories and can picture each event. You inspire me, lift my spirits and make me look at myself though new eyes. Merry Christmas and thank you.

  10. Thank you. I look forward to your article and especially the one every year around this time. Today you gave me the hope I didn’t even know I needed. Happy Holidays.

  11. Thank you! From the gift Sam gave to you I received one too! You have me thinking about all the wonderful folks in my life who changed my world view and offered me more than I thought I had. I’ll be sending them thank you notes this season.

  12. Kerry,
    I grew up in a generally well-to-do town in New Jersey that sounds a lot like your home town. Both my parents were teachers, who had managed to scrimp and save enough to buy a house near the top of First Mountain, looking out over the New York City skyline. Many of my friends in high school were from the decidedly working class eastern/other side of town, in fact on the other side of the Erie Lackawanna tracks that took many of the more affluent residents to their white collar jobs in the City. One of those friends never went to college, worked for the fire department, became fire chief and did roofing, siding, painting and who knows what else on the side. He’s undoubtedly now worth more than the rest of my cadre put together, even though another is now an orthopedic surgeon and another rose to district sales manager for a major manufacturing company.

    Today I live on the lower Main Line outside of Philadelphia, a very similar demographic to that of my late 60’s and early 70’s youth. I note all this because, while your story, and that of my friends, is quite nice and fits what for many today is the myth of American exceptionalism, that with the right attitude anyone can reach the highest heights, if you are either white (and likely male) or extremely lucky.

    I’ve recently seen this fact of this myth for non-advantaged children close up at a Philadelphia elementary school where I started volunteering recently (as a partial balm to the deep depression that set in on the morning of November 9th). On my first volunteer foray it was a cold and rainy day out and as I climbed the stairs to the 2nd floor, I saw with great sadness multiple buckets and garbage cans strategically located down the hallway to catch the water leaking through the roof. The principal had relayed that 100% of the student body qualifies for free or reduce lunch (and apparently breakfast as well).

    The 5th grade Math and Science class I am helping out with has a couple or 3 short of 20 kids in it, which doesn’t sound like much, except that at least 1/3 of the class has multiple learning and emotional issues, and present a never ending challenge to the middle aged first year teacher, having, for a reason I haven’t had the courage to ask, gone back to school for his Master’s degree and teaching certificate.

    I expect that some members of the class can and will succeed, and others, no matter how much they may want to do so, will not. The degree to which the deck is stacked against them is such that, absent an enormous amount of luck, they are pretty well screwed out of a chance at the American dream.

    With an incoming Education Secretary (if confirmed by the Senate) hell bent on channeling public education funds to private and parochial schools and further undermining already resource starved schools like the one I’m volunteering at (a truly meager 90 minutes or so a week when I’m not traveling for work), I expect the prospects for these kids to only get worse. The complete lack of awareness of the reality for so many disadvantaged children through no fault of their own; they didn’t pick their parents nor the apartments and houses they are growing up in any more than you or I did. The complete lack of empathy of the incoming administration and so many people who voted for it (including my aforementioned childhood friends) for anyone not born into the immense privileges we benefited from is beyond disheartening. I’m putting one finger in the disintegrating dike of hope for these kids and millions of kids like them in urban and rural schools across America (not to mention those an order of magnitude worse off in the developing world), a finger that will certainly not be enough.

  13. Nicely done Kerry. Another example of gentle prodding to think more deeply, more currently, and to appreciate our lot more fully. All with humor and a refreshing lack of ‘talking down.’ Have a great family time Kerry, while we all look forward to the next installment,

  14. When I see or hear about people that live like that inspiration is not the word for my first reaction. Woozy? A little sick? We should be inspired by what we can do for others, not what we can do for ourselves and our immediate family. Americans living in lavish decadence (and selfish materialism) is precisely the problem with our society today. Not having to live paycheck to paycheck (which I have done for much of my life) has very little to do with happiness or meaning.

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