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. 

 

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