"Hey kids! You better come running..."
It was the call to action that plopped thousands (and I mean, thousands) of Georgia-Carolina kids in front of their television sets. The man behind that baritone blast was "Trooper" Terry Sams. To know we'll never hear it again - well, it's enough to leave you speechless.
Sams, best known as "Trooper Terry", a local television show character he created, has died. As many of you know, I started my career at (and even my current role at NBC 26, remains tied to) WJBF-TV. When I moved to Augusta in 1976, Terry had already achieved "legend" status. As a kid, I fondly recall watching his daily program Trooper Terry Time. It aired from 1961 to 1981 - six days a week for most of its run. The premise was very simple: Bring in a kid on his/her birthday, let them invite up to a couple dozen of their friends and be on TV. For those of you brought up in the age of YouTube, the latter was kind of a big deal. In between interviews with Troop, kids were selected to turn the knobs on a very old television set in order to play a cartoon. The set was affixed with a special screen so that folks at home saw the keyed-effect of the cartoon beginning on screen...then being taken "full" so everyone at home could enjoy it. Program Director Mary Jones once told me that they would open the phone lines for one Saturday morning and within 20 minutes, a year's worth of birthdays were booked.
It was shortly after I started my career at WJBF in 1993 that I met Terry for the first time. He was in the break room at the Reynolds Street location. I remember Troop was wrapping up a pretty saucy joke to a small crowd of morning news staffers (all long time JBF'ers). I stood there, mouth probably wide open. I'm sure it wasn't because of the punch line. I mean, there I was, standing before the face and voice of a legacy television station. I learned pretty quickly that over his long career, he wore more than just a Trooper hat. There were so many others that fit him as well. The history of WJBF-TV can't be told without J.B. Fuqua, whose visionary approach insisted on diversity behind the scenes and in front of the camera (at a time when people were less-than-friendly to the notion). But matching Mr. Fuqua's kind-hearted, caring style was Terry Sams who became an integral part of making J.B.'s vision a reality. Terry delivered the weather in that rich, unmistakable voice of his. His partner in crime was the station's longtime newsman, Jim Davis (we sadly lost Jim last year). Those two were apparently wicked pranksters. I can't remember who told me, but apparently once while Terry was doing the weather, "someone" (perhaps a grizzled old news veteran) came around and yanked Terry's pants down. Of course viewers couldn't see anything because the camera shot him from the lower stomach up. Terry didn't miss a beat.
And yes, ask Terry about "Leroy" and he'd give a sly grin. For the few of you who haven't heard the tale, it seems many Augustans recall watching his kids program one day when our TV lawman asked a rather sad looking child "what's wrong?" The child told Troop (and apparently MILLIONS of viewers) that his friend "Leroy" had just...we’ll just write "passed gas" for the purposes of this anecdote. Everybody swears they saw it. It's part of our collective memory. I learned recently that this incident didn't happen as so many of us recall; yet for these many years, Terry would still play along. Why burst our bubble. Classic moment: At the end of a Trooper Terry reunion show for the station's 50th anniversary, he closed by ad-libbing "Thank you Leroy, wherever you are". Brought down the house.
I learned early in my tenure that there were hundreds of “Trooper Terry Time” recordings literally tossed into the trash. When I asked the longtime newscast director tasked with such a horrific job, he explained that he dragged a few huge trash bags filled with tapes and reels into the dumpster. Of course at the time, nobody really considered just how special our kids show was compared to all the other locally-produced kids’ shows in the country. Those ancient recordings would now be worth more than gold to some people.
There are so many Trooper Terry stories - but there's one that's especially poignant. And it's one of Terry's favorites. In 1965, some Belvedere kids, the oldest five years old, went out to play but didn't make it home before dark. The temperatures were falling and a search party was put together. Terry heard about it and grabbed a flashlight to go help. He went looking for the kids in a wooded area behind their home. "This is Trooper Terry" he'd call out, alternatively saying their names. To hear him tell it, a little head "popped out" of some brush and said "Hey Trooper". You can bet, "they came running".
When the show came to an end, Terry stayed busy. He eventually became the station's general manager. And when Spartan Radiocasting took over, Terry was happy to come back from retirement time-to-time to lend his face and that classic voice to promos and commercials. That's probably what brought him to the station the morning we first met. After the punch line, of course.
Over the years I found success at WJBF and Terry always showed me support. "Hey 'news director'" he'd call out whenever we'd run into each other. I'd always tell him how tempted I was to put him on the anchor desk again, only half-joking. I get the impression he'd have done it in a heartbeat too. He just loved people. And he loved telling stories (as well as jokes). With that voice, who wouldn't want to listen?
It's comforting to know that Terry was surrounded by family when he left us. I hope they know we're keeping them in our hearts and offer the sincerest of condolences. Terry may feel like family to so many of us, but to them he really was.
For so many, there's one "voice" that's louder and deeper. I'd like to believe Trooper, eyes closed & prepared for life after life, heard that unmistakable delivery call out to him. I’d like to believe it was as warm & inviting as his was to so many of us over the years – a cue to don that signature hat one last time and take that first step away from us.
"Hey Terry, you better come running..."
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