Dr. Peter V. Sampo and what he built

Dr. Peter V. Sampo, photo courtesy of Kathleen Kelly Marks

Dr. Peter Sampo has died. He was already white-haired when we met him in the 1980’s, when he had recently founded a new little Catholic liberal arts college in the woods in New Hampshire. It was one of four colleges he founded. Most often, you would see him smiling a broad, genial smile, or gravely, intently listening from under his heroic eyebrows; or else he was throwing his head back and laughing his characteristic Dr. Sampo laugh: HAH-hah-hahhhhh. He loved to sit in the cafeteria, lingering with his teachers and his students, talking and listening after meals until he would stand up, push back his chair, and say, “Well, time to get back to work.”

He founded four colleges, as I said. But it was more than that. Over and over again, he told us that the education he wanted to give us was not for now, but for twenty years from now. That was over twenty years ago, and I remember how we would roll our eyes at his repetition. 

And he did have his favorite set of ideas that he would roll out, time and time again, over and over, to class after class of the young people he taught. But he was right. He knew that most of us didn’t then understand or appreciate the richness that he was laying out for us, but he trusted that someday we would. And I do. The things I learned in the school he made are the best, most important things I know, and he did his best to found a school that fostered freedom so his students could learn, if they would. It wasn’t until I started looking around for colleges for my own children that I realized just what an unusual, extraordinary thing Dr. Sampo had built. 

He was a hearty, vigorous man, never at a loss for words, never abashed. So many of his students have beautiful stories of his generosity, his gentle kindness, his concern. Apparently he would cook linguine for the whole school; apparently, when he saw that a student in Rome didn’t have much to eat, he quietly gave him a wad of cash. I was not close to him, and I didn’t like everything I saw him do; but I saw him grow kinder and more gentle with age, less willing to overlook sorrow, more willing to stop and find out how he could help. He was willing to adapt and change, even as an old man. What an amazing thing: Willing to change, even as an old man. And tirelessly teaching, and building, and rebuilding.

The college I was at was always in flux, always struggling to make itself into something better, always in danger of collapsing into chaos. Sometimes the college relocated temporarily to a hotel; sometimes the whole student body went to live in Rome, because (the story goes) they couldn’t afford to maintain two campuses at once, and it was more important to be in Rome. Sometimes the campus was home to kittens who hadn’t yet gotten the message that it was a college now, and no longer a barn.

His students dressed well for class, out of respect for each other and for the rock solid curriculum his school offered; and the women’s dressy shoe heels would sink quietly into the soft ground, because the great books were there, but paving was still a plan for the future. I was only vaguely aware at the time what tremendous effort and single-mindedness it must have taken to keep building, to keep breaking new ground, to keep putting food on the table in fat years and in lean, and to keep starting over, tirelessly spreading a rich table of ideas for a new set of freshmen, year after year.

Once there was a morning meeting with the whole student body, and the director of student life announced a new plan for the amorphous dirt parking lot, which was haphazard and dangerous. In the new system, there would be a one-way traffic flow, designed to maximize space and minimize chaos. We were supposed to park head in, diagonally, along both sides of a central oblong. It was a good plan, and it would work, as long as everyone paid attention and did what they were supposed to do.

 

Dr. Sampo stood up and thanked the student life director for explaining everything and for making such a good plan. Then he said, “It’ll never work,” and he laughed his Dr. Sampo laugh, HAH-hah-hahhhhh.

Imagine knowing what people are like, and forging ahead anyway. Imagine knowing how likely it is that your plans will pan out, and still going through with it, because it is a good plan, and eventually it will be worth it. Maybe in twenty years.

He and Dr. Mumbach came to my house a few years ago so I could interview them for an article.  As he passed by the table I had amateurishly restored with leftover bathroom tiles, he rapped it with his knuckles and said, with wonder and delight, “You made this?” As if I had done something spectacular. Much as I wrack my brain, I can’t recall him ever boasting about anything he had made himself. 

One more story. When I was at Thomas More, every student did a “junior project” — an intensive, months-long focused study on a single important figure. You were supposed to learn everything worth knowing about the body of work, and then, when your hour had come, you would creep into the library and take a seat at the head of a long, polished table, where all the teachers were waiting. They would ask questions, and you were expected to give a cogent, well-researched answer.

My junior project was on the poet Richard Wilbur. Dr. Sampo, who focused on political science, let the literature professors direct the conversation, but he did insist on bringing up one of the few Wilbur poems I never liked, “For the New Railway Station in Rome.” 

He asked me a leading question about the poem, which I veered away from. Then he asked me to recite the final stanzas, which I could not do. Then he asked me to recite the final lines, which, with increasing misery, I also could not do. So he leaned forward and asked, gently but insistently, “Simcha, what does it say over the doors of heaven?” and I bleated out, “HOMO FECIT!” Then he sat back and laughed his Dr. Sampo laugh, HAH-hah-hahhhhh.

Homo fecit: Made by man. When most men would have rested on their laurels, Peter Sampo looked around to see whether he could start building again. He was a great man. No one can number the good things that could rightly bear the words: Peter Sampo made it. 

 

My dear graduates . . .

Graduates, as I look out over your bright, eager faces, my heart wells with emotion and a single phrase springs into my mind: Better you than me.

Gee, I would give anything to not be you right now. What a horrible time this is for you. I mean, think about it: You’re on the verge of starting a new life. The possibilities are endless—what the future holds is bounded only by the limits of your imagination. You can be anything you want to be, if you only believe in yourself. You can shoot for the stars!

I’m so, so sorry.

Because that’s what people have been telling you, right? Isn’t that what your guidance counselor said—that there are no limits to what you can achieve?

You know that’s crazy talk, right?

I mean that literally: Only people with a mental illness would truly believe that you can achieve anything. People who actually get things done are the people who look at themselves and say, “Okey-doke. There are some things I’m good at, and many thousands more things that I am and always will be utterly unqualified to do. Starting tomorrow, my job is do the least amount of thrashing around and wasting of my parent’s tuition money as possible, while I figure out the difference between my very few strengths and my billions of weaknesses.

“Then, I need to figure out if there’s any possible way I can do what it turns out I’m good at, and also be a decent human being. If possible, it would be wonderful if the things I’m good at, and which allow me to be decent, are also things which will earn me a salary.”

And after you have that conversation with yourself, and preferably after you come up with a better plan than scrawling “FIX LIFE” on your memo pad, then you can go out drinking with your buddies.

Because here’s the deal, you poor deluded masses of inchoate ambition: Freedom is for something. Freedom is so that you can get something done. Yes, it’s valuable and precious in itself—but it’s not a resting place. Having potential is like being hungry: You want to resolve that in some definite way. All the best things in life come when you tie yourself down in one way or another, when you accept some limitations.

Think about all the things that make life worth living—all the things that people you admire are proud of. A huge project achieved? They neglected other things—fun things!—to get it done.  A happy marriage? They forsook all others to remain faithful. A vocation of any kind? Saying Yes to one thing always means saying No to a dozen more. It doesn’t mean that all the rejected opportunities are bad. It just means that you’re only one person, and are here to do one person’s work.

This doesn’t mean you have to rush into it. There’s nothing especially admirable about going whole hog for the wrong thing (just ask the guy with the Betty Boop tattoo on his forehead). So take your time, look around, and don’t be rash. But for the love of mike, remember that this stage of your life is supposed to come to an end some day. Even if you never end up with a career at all, you will eventually have some huge choices to make.

Or you know what? You might not even get to make a choice: You might find yourself faced with some horrible situation, and guess who’s the only one who can fix it? That’s right, the guy in the mirror, the one who fell asleep in a trash can and his friend drew cat whiskers on his face with permanent markers. The lives of others may someday depend on you, Mr. Fluffy. Try to make at least some of your current behavior reflect that fact.

So congratulations, graduates! You did it. Some of you worked moderately hard to be here today, and I applaud you. Now go forth, act decent, call your mother from time to time. And remember, nobody’s life ever got better after drinking Jägermeister.

***

(A version of this post originally ran in the National Catholic Register in 2011.)

Photo by beltramistudios via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Pro-life spotlight #5: We Dignify mentors pro-life students to lead with charity and humility

Abortion is part of a quick-fix culture, said Morgan Korth of We Dignify. A woman finds herself with a scary pregnancy, and the pro-choice world tells her she can solve all her problems by simply getting an abortion.

But the pro-life world sometimes looks for a quick fix of its own, explained Korth and her guest Zac Davis of America Magazine, in a recent podcast. There’s the temptation to try to swoop in and intellectually clobber our pro-choice opponents with a single conversation or a devastating scientific fact.

But this approach is not only futile, it doesn’t take into account the perspective, life experience, and dignity of pro-choicers or of women in difficult pregnancies. We Dignify is an organization that seeks to train and mentor young people “how to not only be pro-life, but live pro-life.”

The mission of We Dignify is to “mentor college students into skilled, virtuous, pro-life leaders, so they can build and nurture a culture of life on campus and in their future communities.”

Based in Illinois and founded in a dorm room in 2006, they want to transform college campuses into “centers for a culture of life where people treat life with love, new life is welcomed with joy, and people suffering from abortion are led to healing hope.”

They connect pregnant or post-abortive students with resources they need, and train students in practical skills like how to advertise pro-life events and how to lead pro-life groups that may be made up of students with various degrees of conviction.

And they train students how to engage in “dialogue with dignity.” It’s about more than giving the other person the benefit of the doubt, but also “the benefit of their life experience,” said Davis, who interned with We Dignify when he was a college student at Loyola in Chicago. They encourage you not to let yourself see others as a project, or to approach the conversation as a challenge to win.

In an age of hot takes and snarky memes, they challenge you always to consider how what you’re saying is going to be received, and to give the best possible interpretation to what the other person is saying; to avoid being defensive, in person and on social media; and to discern whether to be bold or to be content with helping pro-choicers realize that pro-lifers aren’t thoughtless, heartless caricatures.

In the recent podcast, Davis said that pro-lifers sometimes have a “savior complex;” but they need to be willing to accept that they are here in large part to be witnesses of love, life, and joy, and that much of what they do is to plant seeds.

At the core of it all, said Korth, is “charity and humility.”

They laughed somewhat ruefully over how everyone exclaims happily, every year at the March for Life, at how young the pro-life movement is. But when the march is over, where do young people go? Often, they disengage. WeDignify seeks to train students not only how to help and witness effectively on campus, but how to bring the skills and virtues they acquire forward into their future lives.

Davis said that he’s learned it’s normal for pro-lifers’ fervor to wax and wane, and so he knows what it’s like to become disengaged with the movement. He encourages pro-lifers to have the courage and humility to reengage, and to challenge their peers to do the same.

He said the pro-life movement does include a lot of people who are well-meaning, but crazy. It’s best not to seek these folks out, but instead to seek out those who are good at heart and also good at what they do.

***

Contact: info@weDignify.org
217.255.6675

We Dignify podcasts

WeDignify on Facebook

WeDignify on Twitter

WeDignify on Instagram

***

Previous volumes of the Pro-life Spotlight:

Gadbois mission trip to Bulgarian orphanage

Mary’s Shelter in VA

China Little Flower

Immigrant Families Together

Rio Grande Valley Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center

If you know or have worked with an organization that works to build a culture that cherishes human life, please drop me a line at simchafisher at gmail dot com with “pro-life spotlight” in the title.

Should you go into debt to get a liberal arts degree?

So if you hear someone telling you that a liberal arts education is a luxury in which only the independently wealthy should indulge, I’ll agree . . . if you mean the kind of education that makes you think of your own brain as an exquisite platter of pâté, to be passed around at parties and admired for its velvety richness. Don’t get that kind of education, no matter how much money you have. The world needs exactly zero of that.

But if you mean the kind of education that gives you the unshakable idea that life is interesting, worth thinking about, worth talking about…

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image via Pixabay (Creative Commons)

Podcast #58: Thank you, Chachi!

Who can even say what’s in this podcast? What isn’t in this podcast? Not Chuck Norris, that’s who!

And not a poem by Donald Justice.

Photo by Carlos Killpack via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Protected: Podcast 37: HOCK!!!

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What’s for supper? Vol. 96: Tearwater tea

This week was what we call a “dramatic airport.”

(Sorry about the weird framing. I guess it’s to get around copyright?) Anyway, this week, two kids packed and left for college for the first time. High school started, the the other school starts next week; Benny starts kindergarten; and I’ll be home with one child for the first time in eighteen years. In addition to pretty much the whole world leaving, there’s a bunch of serious trouble and turmoil with folks I love. And this is the short version! It has been a hard week, and we would appreciate prayers! Thank you.

Happily, you can always count on food. Here’s what we had this week:

SATURDAY
Lasagna, challah, salad, cake

And I didn’t cook any of it! It was a family reunion and goodbye party for my niece Mary, who is entering a cloistered convent.
My parents have forty-two grandchildren, most of whom are pictured here:

along with two great-grandchild, one not born yet. Here is my father with all of his children:

My mother, who has Alzheimer’s, is no longer able to go to events like this. She would have loved it.

***

SUNDAY
Grilled hamburgers and bratwurst

The eight girls and I had a “spa day” at home.

Me: “. . So it will be a special afternoon just for girls! Maybe we can watch a girly movie for once.”
Benny: “LIKE THE TEMPLE OF DOOM????”

Well, sure. We also dragged in nail polish, make up, facial masks, and fancy snacks and drinks, plus some intergenerational compromise music, which turned out to be Graceland.

It turns out that cold cucumbers are super hard to keep on your eyes

unless you just camp out on the floor

and that weird sensation of pulling off a dried facial mask is an acquired taste

Corrie’s piggies look good in any color

and Dora had a roomful of jewelry looking for a new home

Corrie may or may not have a future as an aesthetician

and girly stuff is actually completely exhausting.

I also discovered that, while I’ve loosened up enough to let my little girls try on makeup at home, I am not loose enough to share pictures of them on the internet.

My husband and the boys went to the laundromat, went bowling, and picked up supper, which involved meat, charcoal, and magic. I had a dream someone was trying to tell me how handsome he is, and I was like YOU DO NOT HAVE TO TELL ME.

***

MONDAY
Steak, baked potatoes, veggies and dip

Last day with my second-oldest daughter home. My husband, who is the only one qualified to handle steak, had tons of delays at work, so I was reduced to cooking them under the broiler and topping them with fried onions. We had baked potatoes with the requisite sour cream and bits of bacon flavored whathaveyou, and ice cream.

It was good, but it did not make up for my second-oldest daughter leaving. It really didn’t.

***

TUESDAY
Chicken burgers, chips, strawberries, watermelon

Last beach day of the year. (Okay, maybe not, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see a “closed” sign on nature and on happiness in general.)

***

WEDNESDAY
Korean beef bowl, white rice, watermelon and grapes

Last day with my oldest daughter home. It’s a good recipe, but not good enough to make up for my oldest daughter leaving. It really isn’t.

***

THURSDAY
Penne with sausage and creamy tomato sauce, garlic bread, salad

A new recipe for the Instant Pot (affiliate link) from a very thorough Instant Pot recipe site called Paint the Kitchen Red. Turned out quite tasty.

 

I only doubled the recipe, and it was enough for our suddenly tiny family of ten. You guys.

***

FRIDAY
Waffles with whipped cream, scrambled eggs

I bought too much cream for the previous recipe, so we’ll whip it up for waffles. And maybe have some tea.