Don Samis was a plate collector’s plate collector. He didn’t have a ton of the rare stuff and generally wouldn’t blow scads of money in the name of his hobby like others do. He sure did enjoy collecting old plates, though. He enjoyed it enough that he’d pull his traders and display boards together, even when he wasn’t feeling that well, and make the journey from Thedford to Acton in time to meet his pals in the plate collecting hobby, at eight in the morning, on a Sunday in April. He’d seat himself behind his table and spread out his boxes of plates, his “1 TO 1” Toronto Maple Leafs vanity plate, his little signs and papers, and proudly crow about his repainted 1937s, or his custom-made “Sam” plates from Arizona, or his “D SAM” graphic vanity plates that were propped up behind his table through many years’ worth of swap meets. I’ll miss that voice of his, both melodic and grating at the same time. Don Samis, the man who seemed to love plates more than anyone else, the man who simply went by the nickname “Sam”, passed away on January 21, 2011, at the age of 79.
I first met Sam over 15 years ago in southwestern Ontario when he lived in St. Thomas, and I, in London. I was a freshly-minted ALPCA member, having joined within the past year. Sam, although he had collected plates for a number of years, joined ALPCA a few months after I did. When he received his magazines and club roster, he found my contact info and gave me a call to say hello. We talked about plates for a little while, and a couple of weeks later, I made the half-hour drive to St. Thomas to visit, chat, and trade. If I recall correctly, Sam lived alone in a small bungalow in the town proper along Highway 4. He drove a big Ford Econoline van that sported his “D SAM” plates. Graphic logo plates had only just made their debut in Ontario, but he had already ordered a couple of pairs. As I recall, he either traded or sold a 1972 Northwest Territories bear plate to me that day.
Sam moved to Thedford not long after, and within a couple of years, I was on the move as well. We did exchange letters on occasion, which was his preferred means of communication. Sam didn’t do computers, and for a time, he didn’t have a telephone—so in the age of instant communication, we would correspond the old-fashioned way. His letters were always recognizable before reading the return address because he always glued a tiny picture of a license plate on the back. Sam enjoyed ALPCA and would quote the ALPCA membership number when mentioning a name in his letters. He always closed his letters using a familiar pun, which he borrowed from fellow ALPCAn Gary Doherty (with permission from Gary, of course, as that was Sam's honest way): “Tincerely, ‘SAM’ #7213.”
I didn’t come face-to-face with Sam again until I had finally moved to Ottawa. Although Sam was still in Thedford, at the other end of the province, he did travel to Ottawa to attend the First (of only two) Annual Ottawa Valley Meet in 2000, proudly wearing his custom T-shirt with all of his “D SAM” graphic plates. Sam didn’t make the second Ottawa meet in 2001, and I didn’t see him again until the first Acton swap meet in 2003.
At the time, I was not yet married with children, and I was fairly active in ALPCA. I had accepted a nomination to run for Vice-President, and Sam showed up to Acton with a couple of signs in support of my ballot with the slogan, “One of Our Own.” I was very touched by this gesture. It turned out that I came third in the election, with the top two runners winning the post. I seem to remember Sam saying later that he should have made more signs, but that memory is a bit foggy.
By this time, Sam’s health had begun a slow decline and he needed assistance to get around. He was using his familiar walking chair and always had a spot in the front of our group photos. I made point of standing or sitting next to him through the years, whenever possible, when we were doing group photos of swap meets. I gradually inherited the task of posing the group before the shot was taken, but even though I was always the last guy to get into the frame, I would try to squeeze myself next to Sam. It was my quiet way of expressing delight that my elder friend had made the effort to attend another swap meet.
There were years when Sam didn’t appear at our meets in Acton or St. Catharines or Grimsby, and the rest of us were hopeful that he was still well and that we would see him next time. It became an irony that Sam, who was always one of the greatest supporters of Don Goodfellow’s fall meets in St. Catharines and Grimsby, would send out the flyers and make the phone calls, and yet not be able to attend. When the ALPCA Roster went online and paper copies weren’t published regularly, Sam would write me a letter in the late summer or early fall and ask me humbly if I would print out the names of the Ontario ALPCA members so he could send flyers out to everyone in time for the meet. Bless that man.
At the 2008 installment of Acton, there were some plates to be auctioned in support of next year's meet, and Sam wanted a piece of the bidding action. Trouble was, there were only about 20 of us there and it would take about a minute for the auctioneer to coax the next bid out of someone. Sam misheard the amount and thought he was outbid, so he crowed out “Yeah!” to make his next bid—even though he was already in the lead. “You’re bidding against yourself, Sam!” the auctioneer replied. It was a warm moment—one that I wish I had been filming.
The final Ontario swap meet that Sam attended was Acton in 2009. I forgot to bring a video-capable camera. I wished I had brought one, just to catch a few nuances or remarks. In the end, all I could do was to place myself next to Sam for the group photo. The trouble with swap meets is that there are so many good people to talk to, and so much trading to do, yet we only have four hours – sometimes five – in which to do it before I have to hightail home. I did my best to get my chats in with Sam, because I wasn’t sure when I would see him again.
Sam was a modest guy and requested that there be no funeral service. After his passing, it took a few weeks for the sad news to reach many of his friends in the plate collecting circle, including myself. Acton 2011 is a couple of months away, and it will have a sombre tone as we remember not only Sam, but also Bill Verbakel of Sarnia, who also passed away recently.
Sam was one of a kind. I’ll always remember him fondly. Our last picture together shows Sam wearing a sweatshirt the same colour as his 1931 birthyear plate. It’s a bit blurry, and it’s not the best picture—but it is a picture of the best guy.
Rest peacefully, Sam.