Sam E. Spear ’09 grew up in the ’90s with multiple sports, a bit of childhood mischief, the trappings of the day – Batman and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – and seemingly endless summers at the local pool.
When he arrived at Furman University, he came into his own, becoming an intensely driven fitness enthusiast in his major, health and exercise science.
But what made Sam different from most was his ability to connect with people of all ages, a skill that served him well as a personal trainer with The Cliffs at Glassy, a residential community tucked away in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
“I think Sam’s main virtue was his ability to accept, and even to like almost anyone,” said Sam’s father, David, during a eulogy that came all too early.“From an early age, he was comfortable with other kids, but also with adults – really all sorts of people.”
Emeritus Professor of History David Spear shared a special bond with his son. He started reading to Sam each night from a history series when Sam was 6 years old and continued the bedtime ritual well into adolescence, when the pull of other interests prevailed over stories of world history. They shared a love of baseball, too, traveling in the summers to see 15 of the 30 Major League ball parks, sometimes hitting as many as five parks in a single trip.
For Debbie Spear, it was the flowers. Every Mother’s Day for close to two decades, Sam would barrel up the stairs with “his huge feet,” beaming smile and enormous hug to deliver flowers to his mom.
Memories like these sustain David and Debbie in the wake of their son’s death on July 23, 2019. Sam succumbed to alcohol addiction made worse by a traumatic brain injury sustained after a fall, and a series of personal and other health struggles that together took their toll on the 32-year-old.
Almost two years later, the Spears, still reeling from what Debbie terms “crippling loss,” wrestled with how to honor Sam through a financial gift to Furman.
“What we really wanted was to have a sober-living house,” Debbie, says – a drug- and alcohol-free place where students with similar addiction stories can support one another and hold each other accountable during their recovery. But without a straightforward way to set up a house through Furman, the Spears looked to the Department of Health Sciences, formerly known as Health and Exercise Science.
“Sam loved exercise science, he just loved it,” Debbie says.
Sam’s effervescence shined most when he worked as a fitness trainer at The Cliffs, she remembers. “He worked with people a little older than his mother,” she says, keeping her humor. “He just liked everybody,” she says, echoing the words her husband. “There was never anybody, any group, or nationality he was uncomfortable with.” Debbie, an English as a Second Language teacher, frequently had all sorts of different nationalities and backgrounds in the house while Sam was growing up. “Sam was right at home, and he made them feel right at home,” she says.
“We came into some unanticipated family funds – not millions of dollars – so we were able to think about something we could do,” Debbie says. “Sam had benefitted so much from Furman, so we thought, ‘What would Sam have wanted to do to encourage people to be as crazy about this [health and exercise science] as he was?’”
The Spears concluded that if they could find a way to make it possible for students to do extra things, like attend conferences in the field, the funding would go a long way toward enhancing their understanding and appreciation of the discipline – “providing just the right encouragement at just the right time – much like Sam’s internship at The Cliffs changed his life,” Debbie adds.
So the Spears created the Sam Spear ’09 Fund for Student Enrichment in Health Sciences.
“The health sciences department encouraged Sam’s internship at The Cliffs. They knew Sam and the kinds of things he would have liked,” Debbie says.
But more than the gift itself, the Spears want all to remember Sam’s love of people. “He had such an ease with people and excitement about meeting new people,” Debbie says.
Even during the darkest moments of his life and while facing “monumental obstacles,” Sam’s bravery, kindness and authenticity would not be squelched, remembers Sam’s sister, Katherine (Kate) Spear Delayen. “He was genuinely kind, and that’s what made him a friend to all,” she said during Sam’s memorial.
Fiercely loyal, it was Sam who, in his well days, would encourage his friends to stay on track, coming alongside them as they battled their own demons, remarked Rev. Deborah Steed, presiding chaplain at Sam’s funeral.
A close friend who also spoke at the memorial said Sam coached people to think about the long run versus momentary gratification. He poured out bottles of liquor on their behalf, all the while listening, supporting and fighting for his friends without an ounce of judgment.
That’s the Sam the Spears want people to hold in their memory – the Sam Spear who loved people, wellness, Furman and his South Carolina home.
“He loved Furman and was so proud to be a South Carolinian,” Debbie says. “There’s not much we can do to redeem this (loss), but I think Sam would be thrilled to know there’s something at Furman that is supporting what he was most passionate about and the department he loved the most.”