Back home, Sambonn Lek has a title — Oknha. It is an honor bestowed by the king in Cambodia to the most influential and generous benefactors of the country.
Here on K Street, Lek also had a title. It was something like, “Hey, bartender!”
Sam was a little bit of a legend here in Washington, tending bar for more than 30 years at the Mayflower Hotel’s old Town and Country Lounge. He’d cut off senators, light cigars for billionaires and quash partisan bar fights with magic tricks.
But he had another life — his charity work in Cambodia. And that’s what Sam dedicated himself to when the Mayflower’s bar closed last year, when he hung up the bar mop and the long nights on his feet and retired to a country where he was big man, a player, an Oknha.
“I am both excited and sad to inform you that I am returning to Cambodia and leaving the Washington, D.C., area, and the Mayflower, my home for the past 36 years,” Sam wrote in the news release he sent around town last year. (He rolled like that. A bartender with his own PR machine.)
Turns out, it wasn’t just a couple of checks he sent home. The guy behind the bar here in America helped transform the lives of thousands of people in another land.
Over the past 13 years, as you can see on his Web site, Sam built 27 schools, 349 wells, donated 100 tons of rice and offered scholarships to 101 students. The charity has raised more than a half-million dollars.
The way Sam did this was pure D.C. schmoozing at its finest. The charity was born over one of Sam’s perfect vodka martinis.
“When Sam makes it, it tastes better. He knows how many times to shake it,” said William Batdorf, a K Street accountant who has known Sam since the ’80s.
Over one of those martinis in 1999, Batdorf listened as Sam talked about a trip to Cambodia with his mother’s ashes. He wanted to make a difference in his home country, to honor the work his mother had done with the schools in the world’s fourth-poorest country.
“You’ve never seen a $20 bill fly out of my wallet so fast,” Batdorf told me.
A couple of days later, Sam showed Batdorf a list any accountant would love. There was a page full of names and dollar amounts, most of them $50. So Batdorf pulled out a few more bills and told Sam to write the new amount — $80 — big and bold. “And show everyone else,” he said.
Within a couple weeks of circulating the list among his regulars, the volatile mix of shame, braggadocio and bourbon helped Sam raise $5,000.
In Cambodia, that money repaired schools, built wells and bought rice. And Sam was inspired to do more.
Batdorf did the paperwork to make the charity official. It would be called Sam Relief Inc.
Since then, Batdorf has donated enough money to have a school built and named after him.
“I was over there for the dedication of my school. I can tell you how poor it is over there,” he said. “These schools handle hundreds of kids in the morning and hundreds more in the afternoon. A lot of the kids were barefoot. We gave them new flip-flops and some of them wouldn’t put them on because they thought they were too nice to wear.”
On his Web site, Sam lists what a donation can buy, like a drink menu: $24,000 will get you a three-classroom school; $250 can build a well; $350 gets a ton of rice.
“Think of that. You can sink a well for $250 that will change the lives of a couple of families for generations,” Batdorf said.
One bar patron, a Nevada executive who always stays at the Mayflower, funded six schools. A financial planner from Virginia built four schools in honor of the daughter she adopted from Cambodia. And Batdorf remembers the day at the bar when a lawmaker from Michigan handed Sam a check for $20,000.
When the Mayflower closed the bar last year and ended a mahogany-paneled era, Sam decided that was the time to go to Cambodia and continue work on those projects.
For nine months, he toured the schools, shook hands, was bowed to and celebrated.
After all that honor? Turns out, “Hey, bartender!” is what he values most.
So Sam cranked up the PR machine and sent around another news release last week, subject line “Serve it Again, Sam.”
“The last nine months in Cambodia have allowed for a welcomed and much-needed rest. I reconnected with my homeland, and was afforded the time to check in with the students and teachers at the schools developed,” he wrote.
But he missed Washington, and he missed bartending. He worked his first night at the Hamilton on Monday.
“I hope to see you at my new bar,” he said. “I will be ready with “Sam I Am” martinis and magic tricks.”
Back behind the bar, Sam was aglow.
His perfect Manhattan here, a gin martini there.
“He gets the martini just right, with the little shards of ice,” said a longtime fan, who said he stopped going out when Sam left and drank only at home.
It was like a reunion at the Hamilton, lots of hugs and back-slapping. “I had to go to the Hay-Adams after Sam left,” said a wine drinker who has a school for Sam’s charity written into his will.
Sam busted out a new magic trick, whipped around to serve a vodka martini, smiling, waving at all the old customers coming in.
“I was too bored in Cambodia,” he said as a new customer flagged him down: “A chardonnay, please.”
Sam lavished her with attention.
“It’s nothing like this over there.”
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.