Disability Activist, United Airlines V.P. Robert Sampson, 81

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 7, 2006

Robert G. Sampson, 81, a Chicagoan through and through who served on the President's Commission on Employment of the Handicapped under five presidents and who appeared in many Jerry Lewis Labor Day telethons, died of congestive heart failure Dec. 3 at his home in Arlington Heights, Ill.

A confidant of Chicago mayors Richard J. Daley, Michael A. Bilandic, Jane Byrne and Harold Washington, Mr. Sampson worked for years as vice president of United Airlines, based at O'Hare International Airport.

Introduced by Daley to Democratic presidential candidate Hubert H. Humphrey, Mr. Sampson was in line for a role in administration had the Democrat defeated Republican Richard M. Nixon in 1968. He turned down an offer in 1976 to join President Jimmy Carter's Cabinet, his family said, because of the uncertainty of insurance for political appointees.

"A central issue with disabled people is how do you get life insurance when you have a fatal disease," said his son, Robert P. Sampson of Aurora, Ill. "My dad really [turned the job down] for my mom."

Mr. Sampson, born in suburban Evanston, Ill., had muscular dystrophy from age 5, and doctors didn't expect him to live to adulthood. His family lost its home during the Depression; his parents saved for four years before they could afford a wheelchair for him. He grew up in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago, where he worked as a boy at the fire station.

"When the alarm sounded, he'd get into his wheelchair and go over to the firehouse to close the door so the station would be warm when they returned," said one of his daughters, Patricia Harkness of Elkhorn, Wis.

That relationship came in handy when a promised college scholarship was withdrawn because the state of Illinois didn't think Mr. Sampson would live long enough to put the education to use. With the help of his firefighter friends, he got a job at a hotel working nights as a switchboard operator for 40 cents an hour and a place to live. Those wages put him through Loyola University and DePaul University Law School, where firefighters and his classmates, including a future Chicago mayor, would carry him up stairs to classes. Mr. Sampson received his law degree in 1947, finishing the three-year program in two years.

He went to work for the city of Chicago's legal department for the next eight years until he joined United Airlines. He rose to vice president of facilities and also worked as special assistant to the company chairman. He was also the airline industry's chief liaison with the city of Chicago.

He pushed United and the airline industry to come up with better ways to serve disabled passengers and later won an FAA Distinguished Service Award for those efforts.

A frugal and charming man, Mr. Sampson set up a weekly summer flight that took inner-city children on an hour's ride in a Boeing 727 to see their home town from the air.

He joined the board of the Muscular Dystrophy Association in 1974, and his expertise in the disability rights movement and his corporate background served the organization well, said Ron Schenkenberger, MDA's senior vice president for research and health services.

His appearances on the Labor Day telethon endeared him to viewers as "Jerry's Big Kid." Although some critics derided the show as schmaltzy, Mr. Sampson defended it in a 1983 letter to the editor of The Washington Post: "What the show is really all about is saving the lives of others so desperately stricken that greater independence is a decidedly secondary priority. For the Telethon's beneficiaries, the issue isn't independence; it's survival!"

Chuck Goldman, a Washington lawyer and longtime friend, noted that Mr. Sampson "would be on Jerry Lewis's show and bare his soul, knowing he'd never benefit by it. . . . For a guy who told us all the time 'Don't leave fingerprints,' he left a hell of an impression."

Like the Windy City axiom immortalized in Milton Rakove's book title, "Don't Make No Waves, Don't Back No Losers," Mr. Sampson warned his colleagues: "Loyalty is rule number one. Rules two and three are never forget rule one." He also warned Goldman, "Don't talk in bathrooms because you never know who is in the stalls."

Appointed to the presidential commission by President John F. Kennedy, Mr. Sampson served under four subsequent presidents. He received the Horatio Alger Association Award and United Airlines' William A. Patterson Award. MDA established the Robert G. Sampson Neuromuscular Disease Research Fellowship in 1984 and the Bob Sampson Disability Awareness Award in 1992.

Survivors, in addition to his son and daughter, include his wife of 56 years, Jean Sampson of Arlington Heights; another daughter, Kathleen Kortge of Grayslake, Ill.; eight grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

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