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Dr. Ferrol Sams Jr., 90: Classic author, southern humorist, Fayetteville physician

Dr. Ferrol Sams Jr., a country physician known among friends for his freely offered opinions and among his readers for his novels, died Tuesday.

The cause of death, according to his son, Dr. Ferrol Sams III, was complications from being “slap-clean wore out.”

Sams, who lived in Fayetteville, was 90.

All who knew Ferrol Sams Jr., were aware he did not pull punches. With patients and in his writings, Sams said what was on his mind, said Jim Minter, a long-time friend and former Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor.

“He was a character,” Minter said with a laugh. “He could shock you a bit.”

Sams inherited his larger-than-life personality from his father, a Fayette County cotton farmer, who gave him the nickname” Sambo.” Raised on his father’s farm, Sams enrolled at Mercer University around his 16th birthday, aiming to become a doctor.

One of his English professors however, suggested he might explore writing. But with his heart fixed on medicine, Sams forged ahead with his plans. After Mercer he had begun medical school at Emory when his studies were interrupted by World War II. He served as a medic in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, landing at Normandy a month after D-Day.

After his military service, Sams returned to Emory and married a fellow med school student, the former Helen Fletcher, in 1949. He graduated in 1950 and he and his wife ran a medical clinic in Fayetteville from 1951 until they retired in 2006.

Sams practiced medicine for more than four decades before he launched his writing career. But in the ‘70s, when he began thinking about what would become his first novel, he recalled what his Mercer English professor, Fred Jones, told him decades before.

“Dr. Jones set me on fire,” Sams said in a 2012 AJC interview. “He told us, ‘Don’t write a story about the streets of Paris if you’ve never been out of Valdosta.’ Growing up, there was no TV, no radio — just long summer afternoons when my grandmother would receive visitors and longer summer nights on the front porch with my grandfather telling stories about how life used to be.”

That first book, “Run With the Horsemen,” published in 1982, became the first of a trilogy. His bibliography includes: “The Whisper of the River,” published in 1984, and “When All the World was Young,” published in 1991, which completed the trilogy; plus other novels and story collections.

“He was a masterful storyteller” said Chuck Perry, who edited all of Sams’ books except his debut. “I was a book publisher for 15 years, but I had to work harder to edit Sambo than any other writer. The reason for that is his intellect was so deep and broad, that I had to study up to understand references and allusions.”

Perry said Sams’ vocabulary was so expansive, he often had to ask what some words meant.

“I’d say, ‘Sambo, that word is not in my dictionary,” said the former AJC night managing editor. “And he’d pull out his 1927 Webster’s and show me the word. He was just so smart.”

Sams doubled as a physician and writer for nearly three decades, but neither suffered for the other, said Minter.

“I do not think he ever thought to give up his practice for writing, because the doctor was what he was, and he was a damn good doctor,” Minter said. “But he was also a very, very good writer.”

Funeral plans are incomplete, but the service is expected to be held Friday at Fayetteville First United Methodist Church. Carl J. Mowell & Son Funeral Home, Fayetteville is in charge of arrangements.

In addition to his wife and son, Sams is survived by daughter, Ellen Nichol; sons, Jim Sams and Fletcher Sams, all of Fayetteville; eight grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.