“Let’s Make It Count for Something”

(Sam Kittner photo)

Sam Anthony was a steward of history’s ghosts, but his greatest gift was knowing how to live in the present. On tours of the National Archives, where he was the special assistant to the archivist of the United States, he pulled the powder-wigged and knicker-clad Founding Fathers from their murals and parchments and teleported them into the 21st century. With school groups often his audience, he compared them to professional wrestlers and mused about how they would have handled contemporary middle school. He didn’t just work the edges of the archives’ rotunda, where the marquee documents lived inside glass cases; the community theater veteran lay on his back in the middle of its marble floor and said: Look up! You gotta see things from here.

Looking up was Sam’s declaration, his constitution and his bill of rights. He was guided by an inalienable positivity. When I interviewed him in 2018 for a profile in the Review, he spent the morning ignoring the ringing in his ear and the blurry vision in his left eye — side effects of treatment for the relentless oral cancer he’d been battling for 14 years. Multiple surgeries had removed a third of his tongue, altering his speech but amplifying his embrace of the world around him. He was funny and vulnerable, reflective and empathetic.

“I didn’t want to be that bitter, angry person in the world because it’s all going to end soon,” he told me. “Let’s make it count for something.”

Before I left that day, he did what people who know him best would call “a very Sam thing.” He turned his full attention to me, looking me squarely in the eye. “Do you,”he asked, “like your job?”

The question from anyone else might have sounded like small talk, but as loquacious as Sam was, he never wasted words. He wanted to make this life – his, mine and yours – matter. When a new colleague was going through a divorce, Sam’s shoulder was there to lean on. When new people moved to town, his table was set. When his daughter’s soccer team needed a coach, his cleats were ready. Long after his story appeared in the Review, Sam sent texts that began or ended with an inquiry about my teenagers. How were they faring in the wilderness of adolescence? How was I faring? Sometimes, especially during the pandemic, I sought his wisdom. He shared lists of inspiring books to read. He told jokes. He dispensed philosophy. He taught a masterclass in resilience.

“To hold your breath is to lose your breath,” wrote Alan Watts in one of Sam’s book recommendations.

“Relish the present. The now. The future will unfold as it should,” wrote Sam, from his own experience.

When his cancer returned in the spring of 2019 for a seventh and final time, Sam and his wife, Sharon, began a social media group to keep us in the loop about his treatment progress. If the 270 people who signed on hoped to encourage him with love, cheer and cat videos – well, there was a lot of that, and it was all joyous to Sam. But the group became so much more. He took us on a journey through his long days at the hospital and gave us detailed descriptions of what it felt like, body and soul, to face down this fate. He ended each update with a simple directive: “Onward.”

Sam, who was adopted as a baby, never stopped making his days count. In the last weeks of his life, aided by archives employees, he sent a letter and a copy of the Review profile to his biological father. He hoped to tell him a little about himself. After the package arrived in his Arizona mailbox, 78-year-old Craig Nelson dialed Sam’s number. The next day, he got in his car and drove 2,300 miles over four days to meet the son he’d never known.

“Even though I have no claim to it,” his father said after the two met, “I’m so damn proud of Sam.”

Sam died later that week, on August 20, at age 52.

The world that orbited around him stilled in reflection and bowed in gratitude for a life lived not just well but fully. In the final days of an existence that overflowed with generosity, Sam completed one last selfless act: He showed us how to leave the world with grace and at peace.