I called him “Shep,” like, at least two or three times before finally realizing that I’d misremembered (yes, that’s a word now) his last name; it was “Sam Shelby,” not “Sam Shepard.” It was our first day working together, and there I am, calling him “Shep” … repeatedly … because I’m a douche. Of course, when I finally realized (with no small amount of embarrassment) the mistake I’d been making, Sam merely laughed it off and took it upon himself to make the moment far less uncomfortable and awkward than I deserved for it to be … because that’s just who he was.
After spending the previous two years working out of a friend’s basement, I had landed a gig as the editor of an online city guide in Phoenix, and I spent those first few days waiting for Terry — whom I somehow had tricked into hiring me — to come walking into the office that Sam and I were sharing to say that he’d made a terrible mistake, and would I please pack my shit and leave. Amazingly, that never happened. Instead, Sam and I jammed to the latest albums from Limp Bizkit (it was 1999; don’t judge me) and Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Dude”-ed each other incessantly, and became fast friends in a matter of days … and not because I’m such a likable guy, mind you; as we’ve already established, I’m the kind of self-centered asshole who not only will fuck up your last name, but who will then address you in an inappropriately familiar, shortened, nickname version of that incorrect last name. No, Sam and I became fast friends because Sam was the easiest guy in the world to befriend. You couldn’t meet him and NOT want to be his friend.
During the year that followed, Sam, Terry and I had more fun than I would have dared to hope could be had at one of my first “real” jobs. I looked forward to going to work every day because I knew I was going to get to hang with those guys.
Sam was our team’s Marketing Manager, a position that necessitated schmoozing and cutting deals. Anyone who knew Sam is grinning and nodding knowingly right now, because Sam was born to schmooze and cut deals … and not in a phony, used-car-salesman way, but in a genuine, truly endearing way that verged on being a superpower. Whomever was on the other side of the bartering table from Sam surely gave up more than they had planned to before meeting him, and were all too happy to give it in order to do right by this awesome guy they’d just met. It was like the goddamn Jedi Mind Trick.
The objective of Sam’s deals? Well, yes, the primary purpose was to promote our business … but he also took great joy in sharing the spoils of his conquests … which is how Terry, Sam and I ended up working out every morning (OK, maybe not every morning) at an NBA team’s exclusive gym, regularly eating for free at Alice Cooper’s rock-and-roll/sports bar, and attending more than our fair share of professional sporting events and concerts.
An overwhelming majority of my favorite memories from that time in my life not only involve Sam; they happened specifically and solely because of Sam. The dude was a turbocharged catalyst who loved life, and loved to make life more fun for everyone around him.
Of course, our friendship with Sam grew to include Sam’s friendship with both my wife and Terry’s wife … because anyone who was married to Sam’s friend, or was related to Sam’s friend, or was a friend of Sam’s friend … became Sam’s friend. It’s a well-documented law of nature.
Eventually, Terry and his wife returned to the West Coast, my wife and I returned to the Boston area, and Sam returned to his beloved North Carolina. And if Sam and Terry were just two cool guys with whom I enjoyed working, that would be the end of the story. But they weren’t. They were two lifelong friends I’d not expected to make when I took that job in Phoenix, and the friendship we forged was meaningful enough that, when my wife and I took our first-ever family vacation with our baby son, we met up with Terry, his wife, and their two baby boys in Wilmington, NC, so that we could all hang with Sam.
Let me say that again: two sleep-deprived, stressed-out, married couples sporting a combined total of two babies and a toddler between them used their precious vacation time to travel by plane to the South in the middle of July in order to spend multiple nights in a hotel … because: Sam.
In the years that followed, Terry and I got busy raising our kids, and Sam got busy saving the earth and befriending everyone else who lived on it … but we always stayed in touch, and Terry and I always threatened to bring both our families down for another visit.
It wasn’t a matter of “if,” just “when.” I wish like hell that “when” came sooner.
It had been a couple of months since Sam and I had been in touch when he messaged me on my birthday back in January.
Seemed like a reasonable question at the time. After all, he was messaging me on my birthday and telling me about a band, so clearly there wasn’t anything heavy going on in his world, right?
When he didn’t respond right away, I did a deep-dive on his FB page to see what had been shaking with him. That led me to his newly created blog, MOJOWARRIORS.COM … where I learned that Sam — a non-smoker and otherwise super-healthy dude — had just been diagnosed with inoperable, stage-4 lung cancer.
Sam spent all of this year documenting his battle against cancer … and he did so with 10 times more humor and positivity than any human being could reasonably be expected to muster in the face of such complete and utter bullshit. And all those friends of his? They — we — rallied around him … and he, in turn, unified us all and transformed us into something bigger than the sum of our parts, as only he could.
From Sam’s blog:
Since getting the news, I have had an indescribable amount of love, friendship, warmth, affection, support, and super good mojo come my way. It has brought me to tears. These friends and family members are my team, my posse and what I am now calling my MOJO WARRIORS. You have magical powers based on the definition below! If you are reading this, you are most likely part of this sorcery squad, and I ask you to apply it to my situation, and anyone else you know that may need an injection of oomph or love or a high five or a hug. Make them smile, laugh, feel loved, missed..it makes a big impact.
mo-jo: a power that may seem magical and that allows someone to be very effective, successful, etc.
war-rior: a person who fights in battles and is known for having courage and skill”
The MOJO WARRIORS were born.
Sam’s MOJO WARRIORS literally spanned the planet … and if the key to healing Sam was based upon a combination of the number of people who gladly would have given our left arms to make him well, and the intensity with which we all wished and hoped and prayed for him to receive a miracle, he’d have outlived all of us and would never have had so much as a head cold for the rest of his life.
The MOJO WARRIORS movement culminated in last month’s “Joe’s Bucket Bash,” a huge fundraiser to benefit Sam. When the plans first were announced in July, Terry and I knew it was time to make the trip.
A couple of weeks ago, Terry and I flew down to NC for the Bucket Bash. Shortly after we arrived at the event, we got word that Sam was having his worst day yet, and probably wouldn’t be able to attend. Damn. We were bummed … but our disappointment was dwarfed by our concern for our friend and our hope that he get well. No matter what else happened, Sam knew we had come to support him … and Terry and I got to reconnect on a level that reminded us just why we had become such good friends in the first place. We have Sam to thank for that.
We spent the day celebrating Sam and generally marveling at both the size of the crowd that had turned out to support him, and the high concentration of awesomeness that was so clearly evident in every one of his other friends with whom we spoke.
Later that afternoon, Sam texted me and Terry: “If I don’t show up, maybe you guys can come see me later??”
Um, yeah, I’m pretty sure we can work that into our schedule, pal.
Sam sent us the address where he was staying. We slipped out and beat a path to his location.
Despite being exhausted and having tremendous difficulty breathing, Sam sat between Terry and me on a porch overlooking the intracoastal waterway and hung out with us one last time … and I got to hug him and tell him that I loved him. That was a gift for which I could never thank him enough … and as much as I know he wanted to see us, I know he also received us that afternoon because he didn’t want to disappoint us … because that’s just who he was. Right down to his last days, Sam was incapable of thinking only of himself.
My friend Sam died yesterday morning. His brother wrote on Facebook that he “passed away peacefully on the recliner in our living room surrounded by family. His last words are good words to live by — ‘y’all relax.'”
I was not Sam’s closest friend. I didn’t have the pleasure or the honor of knowing him for as long as or as well as did his childhood pals, frat brothers, family members and many other loved ones … and, after leaving Phoenix, I didn’t have the good fortune of living close enough to Sam for us to be a part of each other’s everyday lives … but that never stopped me from loving him like a brother, nor him from holding a place on the extremely short list of guys whom I consider to be my very closest of friends. I had so hoped to have more good times with him.
I speak not in hyperbole when I tell you that Sam Shelby was the sweetest, nicest, friendliest, kindest, funniest, most fun-to-be-around person that I have ever met … and I am only one of the hundreds of people who feel that way. The outpouring of tributes on Facebook in response to his passing is, without a doubt, one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen happen on the Internet. It’s the biggest digital group hug of all time, and it is a fitting testament to not only how many people Sam touched, but how deeply he touched them.
We’ll relax, Sam. Just gotta do some crying first.
I wish I believed in the things so many people believe in at times like these in order to find comfort and make sense of tragedy. Unfortunately, I have a hard time convincing myself that there’s anything else after this ride stops. I hope I’m wrong, though … and I hope that, if there is something else, it has an Alice Cooperstown … and I hope that, when I get there, Sam is waiting for me at the bar with a couple of Waboritas in front of him.
I love you, Sam … and I’ll miss you forever.
Thank you for sharing Sam.
Seemed like an excellent soul.
Oh no. I’m so very sorry.
What an absolutely beautiful tribute you wrote. As the previous poster wrote – thank you so very much for sharing Sam with us. You described him with such love. I bawled my eyes out at “Y’all relax” which seem to me just about the best last words ever and typify his selfless focus on others.
Much love to you and all who knew him.
A beautiful heartfelt tribute.
Beautifully written, thank you for sharing. I’m sorry for your loss, keep those happy memories close to your heart.
Nicely done! I’m so very sorry for your loss.
Beautifully written. Thanks for reminding me of many of our great experiences in Phoenix. Sam was special. I’m fortunate to be able to call him my friend.
Jon Zal says
David Hinson says
Jon, Sam and I have been friends for over 35 years and it was an honor to read your tribute above. You captured his spirit so accurately and (while I know it wasn’t your intent) made me miss him a whole hell of a lot more. Weird thing about Sam passing is that usually when you mourn someone’s passing it hurts too much and you do silly little things to keep busy and get your mind off it… As I have been mourning Sam the most unexpected emotions of happiness, joy, compassion, etc. have been constant… I guess that’s b/c he had no other gear… he was always happy, funny, helpful, etc. and so when you think of him (in life or death) it’s impossible to feel any other way. Yeah, I cried myself to sleep a few nights, but while I expected to be constantly sad, angry, bitter, etc. Sam’s spirit has stepped right in and prohibited me from doing so. Thanks again for such a touching, accurate tribute. If/when you and your family are back in our neck of the woods in NC please reach out as a friend of Sam’s is a friend of mine. 😉 Much Love. -David
Jon Zal says
Thanks so much for leaving this note, David. Can’t tell you how much it means to me. I really appreciate it.
“while I expected to be constantly sad, angry, bitter, etc. Sam’s spirit has stepped right in and prohibited me from doing so.”
You took the words right out of my mouth. I sat down to write something about Sam, and I initially thought it was going to be a rant about the unfairness of life (and death) and basically just me venting a whole lot of anger and frustration and pain over the loss of my friend … but that’s not who Sam was, so that’s not how I wanted to pay tribute to him here.
High probability of a future NC visit. Hope our paths cross when that happens.
Much love backatcha,
I am so sorry for the loss of your dear friend. Obviously, I didn’t know Sam, but you painted a picture of a special man and your tribute to him was amazing.
John Cunius says
Jon, Your tribute to Sam was absolutely amazing and spot on…you are a true wordsmith!!! You made me cry (good kind), you made me laugh and you gave me goose bumps! I thank you from the bottom of my heart for writing such a compassionate tribute. I hope if you are ever back in ILM…we will have the opportunity to meet. May our friend Sam rest in peace.
Jon Zal says
Really appreciate the note, John. Means a lot to me to hear that kind of feedback from other people who knew him so well.
Definitely planning to get back down there before too long. I suspect we’ll cross paths!
So, this is the first time in about 2 weeks that I actually wore mascara, and you make me cry. Sam sounds like the kind of person that should be running for president. The world needs more people like him. I am sorry for your loss.
I am a new reader of the blog, but I wanted to comment to share condolences for the loss of your friend. Your tribute is so touching. I think the goal of every person is to be remembered as fondly as he will be.
Although I want to share my condolences, I find myself thinking that I really need to say thank you. What a beautiful tribute to your friend! Thank you for sharing a piece of your heart with us. <3 May the memories of Sam bring you comfort.
beautiful tribute to a beautiful soul. A terrible loss.
Jon Zal says
Just wanna say thanks to everyone who has left a comment. Your condolences and compliments mean a lot to me. I’m glad I got to share Sam with you guys via this post.
Kristine N says
What a beautiful tribute to your friend. We all should have friendships like that.
I really cannot put into words how much I loved reading this. You hit the nail on the head and put the things that so many of us have been thinking into words. For that I thank you. Sam was an amazing person. To know him was to love him. He was loved by many and will be missed by all who were lucky enough to call him a friend (which was basically everyone who ever met him).
Jon, I am so very sorry you lost your friend. I have experienced that kind of friendship and that kind of loss of friends that can never be replaced and will never be forgotten. It gets easier, but not much. I’m so very, very sorry. That was a beautifully written tribute to your friend and your friendship.
What a tribute to Sam! Very heartfelt and well written – laughed and cried. While I hadn’t seen Sam in years, I fondly remember his spirit, kindness and energy. He has taught all who had the pleasure of knowing him a great life lesson on positivity during adversity. Hugs to you and everyone here! It will get easier, so y’all relax!!
Shawn Moran says
This was one of the most beautiful tributes I’ve ever seen. You not only captured the true essence of Sam, you made me hear his voice throughout the post. Thank you for that. The trip to Chicago to see Foo was with me. I bought him the ticket last year, but I knew the Bucket Bash was way more important and he needed to be there. He had left a pair of shoes back here in Chicago a while back, so my boyfriend wore the shoes so at least “they” got to see Foo since Sam could not. Luckily, we went to see Sam over Labor Day weekend. He was in the hospital and not well but I did not know that would be my last visit. Our plan was to be back there on 9/26. Turns out we will be again, to honor and remember Sam…only he won’t be there. Thank you for this. You’ve put a smile on my face and it’s been a while.
I am glad you got to see him one last time. He was a great guy, with a heart of gold. Every day he made things better around him. He has connected people from all over, he has reconnected people who lost touch over time. He has made me and I believe many others want to live their best life and do right by those whose lives they touch. The MOJO warrior is strong. Thank you for sharing your story and his. It brought tears to my eyes.
wilton c mann says
Thank you for this wonderful tribute to a great man. Sam was a great long time friend that I will truly miss. He inspired me to start my on business. Sam Todd Shelby you will be missed by all.
I too got to know Sam during the insanely fun days of Citysearch! (worked out of the Triangle office, but I recruited nationwide which allowed me to get to know folks in other offices). I also moved back to ILM in 2001 and therefore was fortunate enough to bump into Sam periodically in the mid 2000’s and on. His love of people, his love of making deals, his love of the internet (and remember back in these days no one really knew what the fuck he was even talking about), his outrageous enthusiasm for all things good (environmentally, genuine kindness towards others, empathy, sympathy, etc.)! He was so beyond “special” and you described that perfectly. I love reading about all of the different concert experiences that different friends had with him. His love of all music describes his love for all types of folks from Limp Biskit (yikes) to the Foo Fighters to the Matteson 2 (which I had sent him to listen to during his first rounds of chemo ~ and he said he loved… of course he might have hated it, but he would have NEVER said that to me, although I’m sure he loved it ;). He was so charming, dynamic, lovely, charismatic, chivalrous, etc. etc. etc. All of these beautiful things about this beautiful man have been said, but they bear repeating. But thank you for your beautiful, wonderful words!!!
Thank you so much for this tribute. You are spot on!!! How fortunate you were to get a visit in. So grateful we all knew him and that our world is much brighter since he touched it. It is not the quantity of time we know a person, but the quality and depth. The fact that we are grieving is a testament to the gift of time we shared with Sam. It will take time to make sense of this, although, I am not sure it will ever have sense. All we can do is continue his legacy and focus on making the world a better place!
Wow…I didn’t even know Sam and this tribute brought tears to my eyes. What a great guy and such an incredible legacy he has left behind. May you all find strength and comfort in the legacy that Sam has left behind.