For a man who probably walked more miles in Stoughton than anyone in the city’s history – often in a three-piece suit – Carl Sampson didn’t try to draw attention to himself. Yet for decades, the sight and sound of Sampson, who was well known for reciting the Gettysburg Address each year since 1944 at the city’s Memorial Day services, became as familiar to the people of Stoughton as the Norwegian flag.
Sampson, regarded by many as Stoughton’s elder statesman, died Feb. 20 at the age of 90 at Nazareth Health and Rehabilitation, where he had been living for the past few years as his health faltered. Sampson’s funeral was held Feb. 25 at St. Ann’s Catholic Church, where he spent more than 60 years serving as an usher. He was buried at St. Ann Cemetery.
Whether it was spotting the stately gentleman taking a stroll downtown or watching his Memorial Day ritual year after year, Sampson left an unforgettable impression on many who knew him – or just knew of him.
Last May marked the 72nd straight year Sampson returned to repeat his performance of Abraham Lincoln’s famous two-minute oration at the Mandt Community Center, after first being asked to recite it as a Stoughton High School junior.
“They thought I did it so well they asked me to do it again – and then again and again, and again,” he said in a 2014 interview with the Hub. “They must have liked me because they kept asking me to do it. I do consider it an honor. I’ll keep reciting it unless I get Alzheimer’s and can’t remember it.”
Life in Stoughton
Sampson was a lifelong Stoughton resident, born June 16, 1926, and graduating from SHS in 1945. For years, he lived in the house he grew up in on Hillside Avenue.
Sampson never learned to drive, and before his health deteriorated, he ate most of his meals in local restaurants, including the Koffee Kup and the Main Street Kitchen.
Trish Gulseth, who’s owned and operated the Koffee Kup with her husband, Ken, for more than 25 years, said Sampson often didn’t have to pay for his own meals because of the kindness of customers who either knew him or knew of him.
“He came in almost every night,” she said. “People know that he’s a very distinguished person in the community and they take care of him. We take care of our elders. He is one of a kind.”
Sampson, who never married, landed a job at the Badger Theater after graduating from SHS, and did everything from running the film projectors to taking tickets. After that, he worked for a long time at a bookstore in Madison, taking the train to commute, and once that service ended, a Greyhound bus.
He worked the majority of his adult life as a sales clerk for several Stoughton establishments, and many people saw him walking from his home to various locations around downtown.
But it was Sampson’s passion for history – and sharing that knowledge – that truly made his mark on the Stoughton community. Veterans’ issues were important to Sampson, and Otis Sampson, the first casualty of World War I from Stoughton and namesake of Stoughton’s American Legion Post 159, was his cousin. Legion members were so appreciative of Carl Sampson’s efforts, they hosted a fundraiser for him two years ago to raise money for a bench to honor him at Stoughton Area Veterans Memorial Park, which will be installed when the park is dedicated later this year.
A picture of health until recent years, Sampson’s most recent job was working at St. Vincent de Paul, until he retired at the tender age of 80. He told the Hub in 2014 that all that walking must have had something to do with his good health, and that when he was growing up, he could easily walk from one end of Stoughton to the other, no matter the season.
“Walking is good for everybody,” he said. “For me, it was a necessity, when it was 20 degrees below or 120 degrees above.”
Stoughton Mayor Donna Olson said she will remember Sampson’s unique abilities to remember facts, names and faces, including “knowing everyone, and I mean everyone’s, birthday.”
Mariah Wooster-Lehman wrote in an email to the Hub Sampson was “certainly a Stoughton icon and deserving of the admiration, respect, affection and attention from the Stoughton community.”
“I so enjoyed seeing him walking in his suit no matter the weather (even sweltering heat),” she added. “He would walk up and down Main Street and was always a pleasure to see and visit with.”
Wooster-Lehman said over lunch one day (always at 1 o’clock), he told her he took his watch off because he didn’t like to lose track of time, so he could keep to his schedule.
“Lunch always included a Coca-Cola and the crossword puzzle from the day’s newspaper,” she recalled.
A few years ago when Sampson needed additional care and had to move out of his home, Wooster-Lehman said she missed seeing him around town. While she’s saddened by his death, his presence will be felt for years to come.
“He will always be remembered for his friendly disposition, snazzy dressing and all the miles down Main Street he has walked,” she said. “And, sometimes when I eat lunch at 1 o’clock I will raise a glass to Carl, a man full of charm.”
Man of faith
In a 2014 story about Sampson, the late Larry Eifert, who had known Sampson “since (he) was old enough to recognize people,” said Sampson not only had a “great mind” but was a “man of faith.”
“He really embodies what Jesus told us to do – to love everybody – (and) that’s what Carl kind of does,” Eifert said. “He treats people the way he wants to be treated, and he does that even if they don’t treat him well. That’s really the definition of Carl … an amazing man.”
Father Randy Budnar of St. Ann’s Catholic Church wrote in an email to the Hub that faith was always important to Sampson, and that he was “inspired by Carl’s love for God and the church.”
Budnar said Sampson attended the 10:30 a.m. Mass every Sunday, always sitting in the back. One day, Budnar suggested he might want to sit in the front, but Sampson politely declined.
“He said that he needed to sit in back so he could keep an eye on everyone,” Budnar said. “I think it was because he liked to greet people when they came into church.”
Even in recent years, when Sampson’s health was failing, he never lost his sense of belonging to the church, or his sense of humor.
“I remember at Nazareth house he always made sure they did not bring him meat on the Fridays of Lent,” Budnar said. “We used to joke about it.”
Brad Walker of the Care Team at St. Ann’s said he was given “the great gift of getting to know Carl” in the fall of 2013, after Sampson entered Nazareth Health and Rehabilitation Center due to an injury resulting from a fall. In an email to the Hub, he said over the next few years as he served as someone for Sampson to talk with, “(he) found a friend who gave me more than I could ever repay.”
“(He was) an authentic man, a man of honesty, integrity, dignity, humor, and great love for everyone he met,” Walker said. “During the last eight months of his life, struggling with illness, I saw a man of great courage, a man who complained little and tried his best to make the other person feel valued and comfortable.
“I am sincerely grateful for having had the opportunity to call Carl my friend, and will miss those wonderful visits with him.”