Friday, May 15, 2009

Ted Sampley: The Merry Prankster Remembered

The emails popped up in my inbox late Wednesday. Did you hear about Sampley? read one. It's Ted, started another; he died yesterday.

The email senders belonged to an informal cadre forged years ago, when the POW/MIA issue was front page news. Our group first connected in the early 1990's, when classified documents, Senate hearings, and secret midnight rendezvous consumed those of us determined to learn whether American servicemen remained alive in captivity in Southeast Asia. Our number included some names we all recognize: John McCain, John Kerry, and Ross Perot; other names less known; and one particularly tireless provocateur called Ted Sampley, who loudly insisted that the increasingly ephemeral live POWs did in fact exist. Vietnam veteran Ted Sampley's death May 12 at age 62 prompted one colleague to email me: It's hard to believe.

Isn't it, though. Ted Sampley was one of those energetic souls who seemed less like a mortal being and more like an immutable force of nature. He was immensely entertaining. He was appalling. He was charming. He was despicable. He was the embodiment of the Native American coyote myth: the Trickster. His antics on the POW/MIA issue were so outrageous that when I wrote Prisoners of Hope: Exploiting the POW/MIA Myth in America, I devoted an entire chapter to Sampley. I christened the chapter - and Sampley - The Merry Prankster.

The chapter blasted Sampley for staging publicity stunts that scraped raw nerves or placed innocent people in danger. It condemned him for fabricating scurrilous charges against John McCain. It characterized Sampley's true expertise as "chicanery in the guise of POW activism."

Sampley devoured the chapter, graph by graph. He thrilled to the notoriety. He telephoned me, chuckling, and read aloud from his favorite passages. He praised me for insightfully reporting that he had "a special knack for establishing quick rapport," and that he was "funny and self-deprecating."

Sampley's public response, though, was high dudgeon. He ranted. He raged. Much like he claimed John McCain was really a Soviet KGB agent, he accused me of being a spy. He likened me to the reviled Jane Fonda. He wrote lengthy diatribes about me and his other enemies, notably McCain and Vietnam Veterans Memorial founder Jan Scruggs, with whom he had a longstanding dispute.

Sampley rallied his supporters. They stalked me on my book tour. At every stop on the tour, I found myself discussing The Merry Prankster chapter. If I appeared on a call-in program, the first voice invariably was that of a Sampleyite, challenging my charges. A couple of times I heard Sampley's distinctive leonine voice in the background, coaching the caller. Other times, Sampley himself phoned in - and engaged me in pleasant chit-chat.

The bookstore signings were another matter entirely. Threats were made against my life. My publisher, Random House, was so concerned about an appearance in Fayetteville, North Carolina, that they hired an armed bodyguard.

Sure enough, the Fayetteville signing got ugly. One man in particular grew menacing. He advanced, wielding a cane. My bodyguard grabbed me by the arm and whisked me out the back door. Later, the cane man - who inexplicably knew where I was staying - called my hotel room. We talked at length. Oddly, our conversation grew cordial. He admitted Sampley had sent him.

"I think, down deep, he likes you," Cane Man said.

"He just likes a good fight," I said.

Among his most vigorous was a brawl Sampley instigated against fellow Vietnam veteran Jan Scruggs. The bitter conflict, which centered on copyright infringement, resulted in Sampley being ordered to pay more than $350,000.00 to Scruggs' organization. Sampley ignored the judgement entirely.

We Sampley-watchers grew to view the Merry Prankster through a distinct lens. He was a menace. He had to be stopped. But in 2008, when Sampley tried to use dirty tricks to derail John McCain's presidential campaign against Barrack Obama, we realized something else: Sampley had run out of troublemaker steam. His charges against McCain clearly were baseless, and no one cared anymore about his other big issues. Our informal cadre grew less defensive, and we began speaking of Sampley in the same tones people use for discussing the family scoundrel: He's annoying, but he can't hurt you. Just ignore him.

And then Sampley died.

I could not help but wonder. How did his old enemies feel?

Jan Scruggs sent me an email.

At first, Jan simply reported the news. But his tone was undeniably sad. Jan emailed again, this time recalling his last encounter with Sampley only two months ago.

"At an event in March 2009 at The Wall with Tom Selleck," Jan wrote, "Sampley and I started chatting away in a now surreal conversation. He noted he had heart problems and appeared physically weak. I told him about my bypass operation last year."

The former belligerents continued to talk.

"He chatted about when he and I met at the Wall in 1983 and said, 'There has been a lot of water under the bridge since then.' Anyway, he was really friendly. He gave VVMF $5,000 for the VVM Center."

Jan recalled the court fight. "We were engaged in quite a legal battle with Ted over the copyright for The Three Servicemen statue at The Wall for which we received a judgement of $350,000 from the courts. We never got a penny and finally ended collection efforts.

"Maybe he wanted to make peace with me before he died. I find the whole thing eerie but this encounter meant a great deal to me and, I think to Ted Sampley."

Jan's final words on his old nemesis: "So, Rest in Peace, Ted!!"

The old Trickster, it seems, pulled off one last escapade. He switched off the prankster persona, and allowed the charmer to shine through. He made amends. He befriended a longtime enemy. He created good will.

I find it remarkably touching. I wish I had been there. I would have sent the cadre an email: Did you hear about Sampley?

14 comments:

POW Warrior said...

Ms. Keating certainly shows her class, or lack their of, by taking parting shots at a man who lived by an ethos that she could barely begin to comprehend.

This was merely one story for Ms. Keating, yet this was a man's life's work.

Men were left behind, the government has consistently lied to families, to my family. While Ms. Keating may happily lay her head on her pillow tonight for having the last word, knowing that one of her most unrelenting menaces is gone, some 88,000 American families still have loved ones unaccounted for.

Sweet Dreams, Susan.

Robin said...

Susan -
It saddens me that you would use the death of Ted Sampley to continue to promote your book.

This makes you more dispicable than anything you ever refer to Ted as in my opinion.

Yes you really should have been there to hear and see the exchange between Jan and Ted. Ted did not "turn on" his charm. What Ted shared with Jan on that last visit was heartfelt and real.

Ted spent the end of his life forgiving those who had wronged him so that he could know peace himself. I know this because he asked me to do the same concerning Jan and many others. He told me that life was too short to let it be eaten up with hatred and remorse.

The last 2 weeks of Ted Sampley's life he spent confined to his hospital bed receiving family and friends. He repeatedly told our son Lane that he had been the best son a man could ever want, and that he wanted Lane to live his life doing all things with God's grace. The last words Ted and I exchanged were to tell the other we loved one another, and we meant it.

For all that Ted fought for and believed in, the last years of his life brought him back to what matter most to him. His family and his faith.

Ted's life was not a joke. Perhaps if you were to read his obituary you would see the giant of a man Ted Sampley was and understand the huge loss we all feel without him here.

I know for sure where he is, and I know for sure that he received the welcome home he deserved and I'll bet my life that many of the POWs and MIAs that he fought so long and hard for, that died while he was fighting for them, were there to greet him and thank him.

He was a giant among men.

I am blessed to have known Ted Sampley, to have been loved by Ted Sampley, to have been married to Ted Sampley and to be the mother of his only son.

I hope my father and Ted are having a blast. I'm looking forward to being with them forever.

Robin Owen Goodman

Anonymous said...

Dear Misguided Book Promoter:

Since were using the death of one of the true American patriots in this country, may I take the opportunity to promote Ted's book, "Vetting John McCain".

One thing I learned from the "antics" of Ted Sampley other than to "question authority", was that when backed with facts and truths, all the Forbes-Kerry and McCain fortunes were useless. The richest despicable power mongers, capable of inundating Mr Sampley with lawsuits for the rest of his life, chose not too at a time when they were seeking the highest office in the land. Makes you really wonder "what didn't they want to be exposed?"
Not Only did Ted uncover the lies and conspiracies of government bureaucracy regarding our "last known alive POWs" and their abandonment for political gain, but he lived by a credo that sadly you, Miss Book Hawker could never understand. 'When one American is not worth the effort to be found, we as Americans are lost."
God Bless Ted, Robin, Lane and his friends and family. America lost a great citizen.

ConcreteBob said...

I just left the bar where we toasted Ted Sample's life and his accomplishments. Before thst, I was in attendance at a memorial service that was more a tribute to a local hero. Ted's life here in Kinston NC was as important to the people here as were his exploits as the Merry Prankster in DC and elsewhere (for those of you from a diferent era, Merry Prankster is from the book "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" by Tom Wolf. It detailed the life and antics of Ken Kesey, ("Sometimes a Great Notion" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest") and the beginning of the acid-generation, Owsley, Grateful Dead, Haight-Asbury).
I knew Ted sampley as an avid hater of all things code pink and anti-military. We met at Walter Reed Army Medical Center during code pinks infamous protests on Friday nights at the main gate. The fact he showed up with several members of Rolling Thunder, including Smitty, (who advised me on how best to rid the vermin infesting the sidewalk, which I did) and Walt, a former Marine sniper and President of RT, said as much about the man, in my mind, as needed to be said. He was one of us. He had his means and methods, and the just because someone didn't like them, didn't mean he was wrong. Ted Sampley will forever be a hero in my mind. The additional fact that he served with the 173DABN in Nam in 1965 (8th of November) is just reinforcement.

POW Warrior said...

I am quite confident that Susan Katz Keating had a direct hand in the hit pieces that the Washington Post did on Ted and the fact that her fellow conspirator is selectively choosing comments on those pieces, I wanted to include my comments here. It is painstakingly obvious that they will never see the light of day at the WaPo.

Your recent obituary and blog posts on the death of POW/MIA Activist Ted Sampley can only be kindly described as malicious and venomous. Yet for those of us that knew him and who also intimately know the details of the POW/MIA Issue (which never graces the pages of your publication), let me assure you that it is quite clear that you and Ms. Katz Keating should be ashamed and conscience-stricken for attempting to professionally benefit from the death of a man whose feet you are not even worthy of washing.

I am sure that you have never met Ted, only Ms. Katz-Keating’s maligned perception of him is reflected in your poorly researched commentary. Allow me to correct several errors that you attempt to portray as fact in your writings which should apparently also have Ms. Keating’s name in the by-line. Ted, unlike yourself and Ms. Keating, believed in something bigger than himself. He dedicated his life to those who had none and sacrificed much more than either of you would ever sacrifice for even your most cherished loved ones.

First, it is not the “MIA cause”, it is the POW/MIA Issue, yet you are certainly supporting the party line of seamlessly diluting the truth and dissolving the POW portion of the name. Secondly, there was not “overwhelming evidence” that few service men were alive, there is still regularly generated DoD Intel that specifically provides live sighting reports of Americans in Southeast Asia, the fact that the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) runs roughshod over any and all evidence to that effect is all part and parcel of their political agenda and the heart of the POW/MIA Issue. Yet, that begs the question of how, in the same sentence you erroneously equate live Americans still possibly being alive in Southeast Asia with men being left behind after the Vietnam War. Men were left behind and if you were to have more than a cursory/Keating knowledge of the POW/MIA Issue, you would know that even in the final report of the infamous Kerry/McCain 1992 Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs there was an admission that, “There is evidence, moreover that indicates the possibility of survival, at least for a small number, after Operation Homecoming …” I highly recommend that you review the National Alliance of Families website as some significantly telling research has been done recently on this very topic, http://www.nationalallliance.org.

Your repeated reference to Ms. Keating’s book, which by the way, is not required reading, has been disproved on many major points and is dated at best with respect to the POW/MIA Issue, is anything but covert. Yet it does gives credence to my initial suspicion, she needed Ted’s death published for personal gain as well as one last opportunity to sling mud without having to answer to him for it. In the name of fair reporting, why not include Ted’s opinion of Ms. Keating? (See here: http://www.usvetdsp.com/jan07/ker_keating.htm) Let me assure you, those of us who are on the cusp of what is going on in the Issue consider Ms. Keating to be someone who was barely a flash-in-the-pan and her short-lived involvement in the POW/MIA Issue is about as significant as a toilet paper dispenser in the public restrooms at Times Square Station.

Ted PROUDLY served this great nation on the ground in Vietnam and the libelous questioning of that service shows a level of ignorance that can only be made more profound by someone stating that they could not get confirmation of such. I can only presume that your lack of confirmation was due solely to the fact that you didn’t even make an attempt. I was just able to do so, on a Saturday, in a phone call lasting less than five minutes. Maybe I should submit an application to the WaPo as a writer; I obviously have deeper connections that you do.

Ted’s attacks on Kerry and McCain were more than warranted from those who are intelligent enough to see through the fa├žade of two men who served their country for political aspirations and family expectations respectively to later on collectively build their political careers on the backs of the missing. Kerry’s behavior after returning from Vietnam would best be described as “arrogant, combative, mean-spirited, rude, nasty, underhanded, outrageous and slanderous”- the adjectives that you erroneously attributed to Ted Sampley. Calling Kerry and McCain decorated can be equal to calling Tom and Jerry actors. Wearing the medals and earning them are quite a distinction. Anyone who believes that the son of the then Navy Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Command (CICPAC) didn’t get preferential treatment as a Prisoner of War needs a reality check. The fact that less than a handful of the 591 returned POWs came forward in his support during his two failed presidential campaigns speaks volumes.

Finally, the reference to socialism and Ted getting "free" medical care at the VA is again, another ill-thoughtout attack. You see, not just anyone with a Driver's License can walk into the VA to get medical care. You had to have worn the uniform and Ted's 10 years in uuniform makes him more than qualified to take advantage of services that he earned in service to his country. So, your link to socialism here is a non-sequitor.

This hit piece and that of Ms. Keating’s do far more to illuminate your own personal characters than that of Ted Sampley. Ted believed in a cause, sacrificed himself and dedicated his life to that cause. Few people leave this world with the ability to have this said about them; even fewer in that select group are reporters. Therefore, in the end, Ted still wins.

momadee13 said...

I have known Ted for several years. We met at Lovick's cafe here in Kinston, NC where a lot of Kinston regulars eat every morning. I have had many conversations with him--some of them 5 minutes, some of them an hour. He had a heart of gold, loved his son Lane with his all. He fought for what he believed in and didn't give up. And he loved to joke and "cut up". We talked about everything from his family, my family, current events, his farm and what veggies he had planted this year, etc. The last time I saw Ted was at Lovick's about 3 weeks ago. We were talking about a local festival that was coming up that we both were to have a booth at. Him with his pottery and me with handmade jewelry. I was joking with him and asked if I should request a place close to him or as far away as possible. His answer was "Hell, tell them to put you next to me and we can talk!" Of course, he was in the hospital and never made it to the festival. I will miss him terribly. At the funeral today I will give Lane a big hug (he came to Lovick's with Ted occasionally when school was out) and probably start crying again. He was a good man and will be greatly missed by many. Ted, God has you in his loving arms and I will see you when I get there.

Robert Greer said...

The Product of Merry Pranksters

In 1971 a young Marine Jeffrey Heisley lay dieing of hepatitis in a hospital in Quantico, Virginia.

His father Newt Heisley a WWII C-46 pilot sat waiting by his side.

Newt said Jeffrey reminded him of a Prisoner of War and he made a sketch that came to represent all Prisoners of War.

The sketch was made into a flag
and the flag was carried around the world.

Many, many people carried that flag and today it is mandated by law that that flag be flown under the Stars and Stripes on certain Federal Properties.

Since the first flying of that flag 829 of America's 2583 Vietnam War Missing in Action have been accounted for and efforts are continuing to locate the remaining 1,754.

The flag now represents the POW's and MIA's of all of America's wars, and they too will be accounted for.

On May 12, 2009 Ted Sampley, America's foremost standard bearer of the Black and White POW MIA flag died of a "heart problem".

Two days later, on May 14, 2009, Newt Heisley died suddenly after a long battle with that same "heart problem".

When Newt arrived at the Gates of Heaven he witnessed a most beautiful site.

It was Ted Sampley with one arm chained to Heaven's Gate and the other arm waving Newt's Black and White flag.

On the other side of the Gate there were 58,245 grateful Americans waiting to "Welcome" Newt ... and Ted ... "Home".

Robert Greer
L 3/26 USMC VN 1968
South Jersey POW/MIA Awareness

Sharon R. Barnett said...

Okay, Ms. Keating, I haven't read your book. I would not read your book even if someone gave it to me free.
You said that Ted Sampley "scraped raw nerves and put people in danger." Hmmmm, after knowing Ted Sampley for OVER two decades, I have NEVER seen him put anyone in real danger. The scraping of raw nerves may be yours, McCain's, or John Kerry's. Ted never scraped my "raw nerves" or put me "in danger".

"Fabricating charges" against John McCain. Hmmmmmmmm!! Seems like if the charges were fabricated, John McCain would make his service record public or file a slander suit:both of which he never did.

"Chicanery in the guise of POW activism". Ohh my dear Ms. Keating, you obviously didn't know Ted Sampley very well. He was a TRUE activist concerning POWs, Veteran Issues, and democracy for the South Vietnamese among many other things. When is the last time you protested against a wrong doing, trying to make it right??

I am sooooooooo angry about the statement "Threats were made against my life". I or noone else that knew Ted Sampley could even imagine him threatening a life. I would like proof of that one!!!!!!!!!
And now we get to Jan Scruggs. Yes he was responsible for get the "Wall" done for Vietnam Veterans. That was good. But that was it. I am sure you are aware of him being the head of the Vietnam Veteram Memorial Fund. You know, that organization that used to send everyone postcards of the Wall and basically telling everyone that the Wall was going to fall down if they didn't send in contributions. Ohhh yes,, just a little reminder, when Jan was doing this, he had nothing to do with the maintenance of the Wall. Park Service maintained the Wall. Ted Sampley didn't feel the Three Men Statue, that was supposed to be for Vietnam Veterans should be copyrighted. The artist had been paid for doing the statue. Anyone using that statue for anything, could get sued and have to pay the artist more money, after he had already been paid. Ted Sampley went out on a limb,by himself, to say that was wrong, the statue should NOT have a copyright on it. FYI. did you see the 60 minutes segment they did on Jan Scruggs and his organization????? It was fantastic. Dan Rather got Scruggs to tell the overhead of his organiztion to pay all the people that worked for him. Jan Scruggs left that show with his tail between his legs. I would invite you to call 60 minutes and get a copy of that tape. Of course, you will have to pay for it because it is copyrighted.
Don't bother to respond, because I won't read it. Ted Sampley had more character, dedication, and honor in his little finger than you will every have.

Anonymous said...

Memorial Day 2009

Susan Katz Keating's father,
a Korean War combat veteran,
routinely went into paroxysms of rage
over America’s inexcusable mistreatment
of Vietnam veterans.

" Once, my father and I were riding our horses
when we encountered some “peace” bullies
picking on a soldier in uniform.

Incensed, I galloped my horse
directly into the protesters.

Afterward, I was grounded;
but my father granted me custody
of his treasured Combat Infantryman’s Badge."

That soldier in uniform was Ted Sampley

Susan Katz Keating said...

Thanks to all for posting. A few responses are in order.

First of all, to Robin. I am sorry for your loss. Truly, I am. I hope you will take the time to look again at my essay, and reconsider your interpretation. I was not trying to write a hit job on a man who could not defend himself; I was trying to make sense of a complex personality who played a role in my own life. I agree that Ted was a giant of a man; I wrote that he was like a force of nature. I was deeply touched that he and Jan made peace with one another. At core, Ted had a good heart, and this is what ultimately shone through. I'm sure Ted is, like you wrote, having a blast "upstairs" with your father Bobby. I remember those many years ago, when Nick died, you told me a beautiful story about Nick going through the halls of the Special Warfare Center to find someone who knew your father. The person who arranged for you and I to talk was Ted Sampley. So now, with Ted and Bobby together, I'm equally sure that Nick is with them., too. And Rocky. God bless them all.

Concrete Bob: I much appreciate your insights. Thank you for posting.

POW Warrior and others: My post had nothing to do with promoting a long out of print book. The subject of POWS - no matter which side of the issue you support - interests virtually no one but those of us who have studied or followed the issue. This, in my view, falls in line with society's overall disinterest in the soldiers who fight on our behalf.

I never once accused Ted Sampley of threatening my life. He never would have done that. Others, however, made clear and credible threats.

Anonymous: Okay, I'll buy into the metaphor. Perhaps the soldier in California was in fact Ted Sampley. This is why, "off stage," Ted and I had an understanding. We each knew that the other cared deeply about the soldiers. We did, however, hold polarized views on two issues (POWs and John McCain); and we had vastly different methods of expressing ourselves.

Anonymous said...

great post thanks

Anonymous said...

I find it funny. Painting Ted Sampley as this "POW flag standard bearer". As he harrassed John McCain for years.
If he was a "green beret" he sure didn't act like one in civilian clothes.

Gordon Duff said...

Sampley was worth a hundred McCains.

Everything Sampley said was verified by Col. Ted Guy, Col. Early Hopper and Sgt. Maj. John Holland.

Nothing Susand Katz says has ever been anything but...

but what?

FULRO Mike said...

I suggest you step away from the Kool Aid, Mr. Duff. SKK's reporting is beyond reproach. She is a great friend to veterans, and to Vietnam vets in particular. She searches for truth. Some people don't like what she finds. Their problem.