Collectively and individually, they have long thought about the always-affable and hard-working Sammie Grant: how his smile lit up a room and how few could eclipse his running.
And they have wondered what he might have achieved had he lived.
The race, fellow members of Sammie Grant’s Buchtel High School graduating class of ’63 tell me, was always his to win.
Sammie — the hands-down most popular member of the class of more than 600 students — was the subject of many conversations this summer at the milestone 50-year class reunion.
Thanks to a cadre of admirers of this unofficial school ambassador, the remembrance of Sammie didn’t end there.
Sammie’s fellow classmate Sen. Tom Sawyer, D-Akron, phoned several weeks back, talking about Sammie and alerting me to what was in the works to honor the class of 1963’s hero.
Sawyer — who lived outside the district and paid to attend Buchtel his senior year — marveled at the first time he met Sammie. “I had been there less than a half-hour and this tall, thin, black kid came up to me in the hallway and said, “Hi, Tom Sawyer. Welcome to Buchtel!”
“I couldn’t believe he knew my name. So, I asked another student about him. He said, “Oh, that’s Sammie Grant. He makes it his business to know everybody!” He was just a remarkable guy in every way.”
“We had the best cross country team in [the] STATE,” Sawyer recalled with pride. “Sammie could have easily outrun any of them but he wasn’t on the team because he had to work to help support his family. I believe he worked at a grocery store.”
According to his death notice — he died Aug. 26, 1964 — Sammie, who wasn’t on any of the school’s sports teams, delivered the Beacon Journal (from the time he was 13) and his employer called him “one of the finest boys we’ve ever had.”
Sammie, however, was happy to put his running abilities on display during the school’s annual “Turkey Day” run leading up to the Thanksgiving holiday break and he would always win, said classmate, race organizer and a member of the cross country team John V. Lund, who is now a civil engineer and vice president of CTI Engineers Inc.
“Members of the track and cross country teams could participate along with the rest of the student body; they just couldn’t win,” Sawyer noted.
“Sammie won the Turkey Day Race the day before Thanksgiving 1962, and also 1961,” Lund shared.
He won the turkey for his family, which was always a source of celebration for everybody.
Turkey Day tradition
I’ll interrupt the Sammie narrative to say that Sawyer and a committee that includes Lund have been hard at work trying to restart that Turkey Day race of old in Sammie’s memory. The race, which didn’t work out for the Thanksgiving holiday, was to be held today at the school, but weather concerns led organizers to postpone it until next year. (See sidebar for details.)
As fate would have it, Sammie’s right leg was amputated because of cancer in May 1963, one month before graduation. “The entire student body staged a fundraising drive to help pay his medical expenses at that time, and even students at South High — some of whom had known Sammie in junior high — joined the campaign,” a Beacon Journal story said.
Even with his prosthetic leg and crutches, Sammie didn’t slow down.
He graduated and earned a scholarship to the University of Akron. No one was surprised. In fact, they trumpeted him.
But the much-loved 19-year-old Sammie — as the Beacon Journal news story of his untimely death read — “was killed early today when he leaped from a third-story window to escape a fire and landed on a fence.
“The [second-year] Akron University student, apparently blinded by the smoke, impaled himself on a 10-foot section of an ornamental iron fence that was partly concealed by rose bushes. He had moved into the apartment only on Monday.
“Seven other residents of the three-apartment frame building, 27 N. Walnut St., escaped without injury. Fire damage was confined to the apartment Grant shared with another student. …
“Grant was alone in the apartment when the fire broke out about 4:30 a.m. …
“The fire was concentrated near an open back porch whose floor was freshly tarred.”
“He wanted to become an electrical engineer,” the story continued. “He had been an honor student at Buchtel and a popular member of the senior class.”
“If all my boys were like Sammie Grant, I’d have an easy job,” said the principal at Buchtel, Oscar Schneyer, when Sammy had his leg amputated.
Other Buchtel classmates helping to plan the all-school race shared their memories of Sammie:
• Lund: “In the fall of my final year at Buchtel High School, I had the honor of meeting Sammie Grant in the school cafeteria at lunchtime. He knew me because I was one of the top cross country runners that year and was wearing my letter sweater. I did not know who he was but that would change in an instant. … What impressed me most about his introduction to me was his warm and accepting greeting and smile and the fact he liked running. From that moment on, Sammie and I would have lunch together regularly.
“The image of Sammie praying before our meals left a lifelong imprint on my heart.
“Back then, I would refer to him as my ‘black’ friend. Today I remember Sammie as just my best friend during my senior year. He was unpretentious, humble and gracious. He was an encourager, truly a young man of character with whom anyone would be comfortable in his presence. Sammie won the Turkey Day run that fall, making all of his who knew him very proud …
“It is those qualities of his character we wish to uphold as a model for the community of students at Buchtel with inauguration of this annual event in honor of Sammie.”
• Harry Movsesian — owner/independent contractor who sells candy nationwide: “When I think of Sammie, I think of his genuine smile, his thoughtfulness and his kindness towards others. If I was having a bad day, all it took for that to change was seeing his infectious smile and my day got immediately better.”
• Mike LeHere — CEO at Midwest Business Development Group Ltd. and CEO at Akron Global Business Accelerator: “I guess I would characterize Sammie as the Ambassador of Friendship for the Class of ’63 at Buchtel. He had so many friends and was such a caring person. Unfortunately I don’t think we knew what a great person he was until he was gone and it made such a hole in all of our lives. …
“It’s a true shame that he died so young; for he was destined to be something great. The world got a little colder the day he died.”
• Malcolm J. Costa — president and CEO of Akron Summit Community Action Inc., who grew up within a few houses of Sammie on Bellevue Avenue — was Sammie’s roommate at the North Walnut Street apartment. They had only lived in the apartment for a few days before the fire, which happened when Costa was at work: “It was very traumatic. Still is,” Costa said. “Sammie was a great person. … Independent and very resourceful in the way he earned money. … At 16, he had his own car — a ’56 brown-and-white Chevy Bel Air convertible. He was proud of that car. I think he washed it every day …
“Sammie moved here from Alabama when, I think, he was in the seventh grade and went to West Junior High.”
Costa had attended Buchtel one semester along with his younger sister Delcinia before transferring back to South High where he graduated in 1964.
Beyond being neighbors and best friends, Costa and Sammie also were “newspaper buddies.”
“A few months after he got a newspaper route, I got one because of him,” Costa reminisced, adding that the pain of losing Sammie has never gone away.
But the chance to honor him in this way with the race seems a very fitting tribute, he agreed.
Jewell Cardwell can be reached at 330-996-3567 or email@example.com.