Disabled man's death saddens his many friends

November 28, 1993|By Angela Winter Ney | Angela Winter Ney,Staff Writer

By most standards, Ernest Sampson was a nobody, a mentally disabled 30-year-old who had been passed from one foster home to another.

He had no job at times, no transportation but his bicycle, and few material possessions.

But when he was killed in a car accident two weeks ago, hundreds mourned.

"Here was this kid who had no money, nothing going for him. His family didn't raise him. But he had a huge impact on people, a wonderful way of looking at things. He was always happy," says Clay White, a physical education teacher at Marley Glen School. "When he walked into a gym, people just brightened up."

More than 500 people came to St. John's United Methodist Church in Pumphrey Nov. 15 to talk about what Mr. Sampson had meant to them.

"There weren't any strangers with him. He'd walk right up to you and make an instant friend," says the Rev. Richard L. Grammer, pastor of Granite Baptist Church in Glen Burnie, which Mr. Sampson attended for the past three years. "He was always smiling."

About a month ago, a new couple visited the church, the pastor recalls. "Ernest parked right next to them and said, 'I'd like to sit here with you, if you don't mind.' "

Says Mr. White: "He'd meet someone once, then he'd see them in the mall and go up and talk to them. He was very uninhibited. It was one of his strengths."

Even though he had little stability in his own life, Mr. Sampson always tried to make others feel secure, says Ed Baumgardner, who directed the county's Handicapped Athletic Program [HAP], through which Ernest played basketball for 20 years.

"He'd sympathize with your problems. He'd say, 'Oh, that's too bad. But everything's going to be all right.' " Mr. Baumgardner remembers.

At HAP banquets, Mr. Sampson would approach Mr. Baumgardner's wife, Marge, with the words: "Mrs. Baumgardner, you look SO beautiful tonight!"

"He just loved everybody," she says. "And people took him for granted. They didn't realize what he was until something happened to him."

Mr. Sampson was walking along a Pumphrey road, pushing his bicycle, which had broken down, when a car came around a corner and hit him. He was killed instantly.

He had been moved to a Pumphrey foster home last April and didn't know the community too well, friends say.

Mr. Sampson was born in Baltimore on Oct. 3, 1963, to the late Willie Lee and Mary Gorham Sampson. He was one of six children, all surviving. After living in a number of foster homes, he moved to the home of Curtis and Doretha Stewart.

Throughout his life, Mr. Sampson was an avid softball player and participated in the Special Olympics. He would proudly display the many silver and gold medals he'd won.

Teachers at the Marley Glen School, which he attended for several years, were repeatedly surprised at the distances Ernest would ride his bike to attend events.

Says Mr. White: "He never missed a Special Olympics dance here at school. He'd go out of his way to get somewhere, with incredible persistence."

Says Kass Bargar, a physical education teacher at Marley Glen who also works with Special Olympics: "He had so little, but he was excited about everything. He was a great dancer and loved music of any kind."

Mr. White, who often gave Mr. Sampson rides and who observed his struggles -- he sometimes had to pay acquaintances to drive him somewhere; he wore hand-me-downs that various friends and teachers gave him -- calls him a hero.

"What made Ernest unique in our society was his remarkable attitude toward life and people in general," says Mr. White. "He was like you'd want your son or daughter to be. You could take him anywhere and be proud to be with him. He was a warm human being."

Mr. Sampson always had been cheerful, but when he became a Christian and was baptized three years ago, he gained confidence, says his pastor.

A few weeks before he died, Mr. Sampson had spoken with his minister about a job he hoped to get.

"He said, 'They really think I can't do this job. But I found out through Christ I can do all things,' " Mr. Grammer says.

"His faith turned a light on for him," says the minister. "He bubbled. He had some of that before [his conversion], but when he really found his peace with God, he found his place in the family of God. Everywhere he went, he talked about it. And everywhere he went, folks opened their hearts to Ernest."

A woman who lived across the street from Mr. Sampson during the past year recalls that he always tried to help people, despite his limitations.

"He wanted to do you favors, and he'd do the best he could," says Delores Routh. "He offered to help out in the community, and when he went on the [Pumphrey neighborhood] playground, the children loved him. He was open to everyone. If you knew Ernest, you knew what love was."

Says Ms. Bargar: "He made everybody feel great. It will be a long time before people forget him."

"I think everybody feels empty," says Mr. White. "Ernest gave a lot more than he ever received. That smile was always there."

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