I was saddened to learn that Georgia writer Ferrol Sams died Jan. 29. Although I only met him once, I feel as though I lost a friend. Sometimes people we know through their writing can feel like closer friends than those we know personally.
I first became familiar with Sams and his work in the 1980s, when—after 40 years as a country doctor—he launched a writing career with his biographical book Run With the Horsemen. So many of my co-workers at the time were talking about the book that I bought a copy just to be part of the conversation. I was immediately hooked on his often funny, often touching stories of Georgia in the early 20th century. I believe I’ve read about every book he’s written.
Sams was 90 when he died of what his son called “complications of being slap-clean wore out.” A little more than a year before his death, I had the privilege of chatting briefly with him at a reception prior to a Stone Mountain ART Station performance of a play based on his short book Christmas Gift!
Like my mother, Sams grew up in rural Georgia in the 1920s and ‘30s, a time and place where most families lived off the land and cash was a rare commodity. His memories often were similar to my mother’s and sometimes prompted her to recall details of her childhood. In Christmas Gift!, Sams told of the custom—lifted from the Black community—of greeting members of the household on Christmas morning by shouting “Christmas gift!” It was a sort of game the object of which was to “get Christmas gift” on someone else before they could get it on you. My mother remembered that custom from her childhood. Now, when we gather at my mother’s house for Christmas, we exchange the greeting “Christmas gift!” on Christmas morning.
Although he wrote with crystal-clear recollection about Georgia during the Great Depression, Sams did not get lost in that earlier era. In his collection of short stories, The Widow’s Mite, he talked about urban violence, AIDS and other issues foreign to his Fayette County upbringing.
He was a wonderful storyteller with an almost poetic way with words. He could weave homespun expressions and scholarly terms together in a way that made neither seem out of place. He was a fine example of what makes Southern writers a breed all their own.
He was active and sharp pretty much until the end. The evening I met him, his charm and sly sense of humor were still very much in force. I asked him to autograph a book for my mother and he wrote something about her having raised a charming daughter. He was a Southern gentleman of the sort rarely seen anymore.
A little bit of Georgia’s literary heritage left us last month, but Ferrol Sams isn’t really gone. As with other accomplished writers—especially those who have helped us tell the story of our state and our region—he’ll be with us for a very long time through the wonderful words he left behind.