Celebrating My Two Heroes Named Sam

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March 2 is Texas Independence Day. It is also the birthday of two of my heroes, both named Sam, a fitting confluence of events. Sam Houston was born on March 2, 1793, in Rockbridge, Virginia and died at the age of 70 in Huntsville, Texas. His colorful career included serving as a member of Congress and governor of Tennessee, a stint living with the Cherokee Indians where he earned the sobriquet “Big Drunk,” hero of the Battle of San Jacinto, twice president of the Republic of Texas – and a U.S. Senator once Texas joined the United States. His political career ended because, as governor, he opposed secession and was declared deposed from office in March 1861.

Sam Malone, born on Texas Independence Day in 1920, is a personal hero. He taught me more about country newspapering than anyone, starting in 1982 when I went to work as managing editor of The Rambler, a weekly paper he started in San Augustine, in Deep East Texas, in 1967. Sam sold the paper a year earlier but still operated a job-printing shop in the other half of the building. As I have written before, Sam was the archetypal country newspaper editor with a bottle of cheap whiskey (Evan Williams preferred) in his desk drawer, a loaded shotgun in the corner of his office, and a foul-smelling cigar constantly lit.

I first heard of Sam in the late 1970s, when Texas Monthly writer Richard West featured him in a story about San Augustine. West recounted how Sam took on the entire school board in his paper and managed to get a reform slate of candidates elected. A losing member cold-cocked him with her purse, an event that Sam duly recounted in the following issue.

A few years later, having finished all my coursework for a master’s from the University of Texas at Austin, I was slowly going bonkers from boredom, working as a bureaucrat for the state. On a whim, I called Sam and asked if he needed any help. He told me he had sold the newspaper, but the new owners were looking for a managing editor. A few weeks later we were driving a U-Haul to San Augustine. Several months after that I ended up buying the paper and stayed five years. Thus began a friendship that lasted until his death in 2000, more than a decade after I had left San Augustine.

Sam was particularly proud of sharing a birthdate with Sam Houston and had a deep love for Texas history. He devoted untold hours to reading about it, reprinted a couple dozen arcane titles of Texana in his print shop, and infected me with the same fascination. I ended up writing my master’s thesis while living in San Augustine on The Red-Lander, a major newspaper during the years Texas was a republic. Sam Houston practiced law in what was then known as the Athens of Texas and served as a member of Congress between stints at president.

Though Sam had technically “retired” from country newspapering, he still covered the San Augustine Wolves’ football games, taking notes in the pressbox while I prowled the sidelines taking photographs. We traveled the backroads of Deep East Texas, me driving while Sam sipped on a whiskey and coke. Before each game, he would fill a half-dozen film canisters — back when everyone shot film — with whiskey. He would buy a Coke from the snack bar and mix a drink to keep him company while covering the game.

For a few years I leased the public access television channel from the cable company in vain hopes of making some extra bucks. There were two weekly newspapers in a town of 3,000, so making a living was tough. Sam conjured up the idea of us producing a weekly 30-minute show on Texas history, especially since the state in 1986 was celebrating its sesquicentennial. So every Wednesday afternoon at 3:30 we would sit behind his desk, piled high with papers, cigar ashes everywhere and Ventilator the Cat usually perched on the chairback behind Sam’s skull. We each held coffee cups. I tried to keep mine from clinking since both contained ice cubes and Evan Williams whiskey cut with tap water. Sam didn’t care whether his clinked or not.

Rambler Channel 2 was almost certainly one of the worst-produced cable-access stations in the state’s history. A video camera was propped in the corner, and Sam’s ancient mike was held together with duct tape. (He also did a morning radio show each day for 15 minutes.) We rebroadcast the Wolves’ football games each Saturday morning, using the grainy tape shot by the coaches in the pressbox. Sam would do the play-by-play, and I was the “color” commentator. Sam actually knew what he was doing, having covered football since the Gipper suited up for Knute Rockne. On the other hand, I didn’t know a tackle from a guard, a tight end from a wide receiver. I still don’t.

I left San Augustine in 1987 for my first stint at Kilgore College. Sam and I stayed in touch as I wandered from one newspaper to another. I would make the drive from Nacogdoches or Lufkin to visit him every few months. He always had what he called a “care package” of newspaper clippings, magazine articles, maybe another book he reprinted, all waiting for me, the pile invariably coated with a thin layer of cigar ash.

Cancer caught up with Sam in 2000. He treated his impending death with equanimity and courage, and we visited in the hospital not long before he passed. He was one of the bravest people I have had the privilege of knowing.

So on March 2, I will lift a glass in tribute to Sam Malone. But it won’t be Evan Williams whiskey. I never acquired a taste for it.

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