Bob Sampson Rose Above Muscular Dystrophy

Bob Sampson, vice president of facilities for United Airlines, spent his life fighting for disability rights. He was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy at age 5. He died this week at 81.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Bob Sampson died last weekend at the age of 81. He wasn't a household name, and that's the way he wanted it. Don't leave fingerprints, he used to say. Mr. Sampson was the vice president of United Airlines, who flew around the world but always came home at night. He was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy when he was five. It took four years for his parents to save enough money to buy him a wheelchair. He spent 32 years in that wheelchair - going to college, in law school, becoming an international executive, serving on a presidential commission under five presidents, appearing on the muscular dystrophy telethon.

He devoted his life and career to bringing down barriers and pushing for research to help others with disabilities. Charles Goldman is a longtime friend who worked with Bob Sampson. He joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. CHARLES GOLDMAN: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Can you recognize the way in which our cities just look and operate a whole lot differently because of his work?

Mr. GOLDMAN: He was at the forefront for years with the then-president's committee on employment of people with disabilities. I'll give you a classy example here in town. When the elevator at the Lincoln Memorial was being dedicated - that was one of the first things, one of the first functions of the board that he was at, to help buildings become accessible. And I know he has no supernatural powers, or you know, so I kind of think heaven might be accessible with him there now, finally.

But he helped get the money and start the ball rolling so that people would say, accessibility, that means more than living close to the airport. That means getting from here to there. Employing people with disabilities, he was at the forefront for years with the then-president's committee on employment of people with disabilities. I mean you go around in this country and you go into a United facility, say you're in O'Hare, their big hubs, you can feel Bob Sampson, because those are accessible because of Bob.

SIMON: Made brief mention of the fact that as a vice president of United he would fly around the world, but always come home at night. Now, he loved his family, but there were other reasons why if you're in a wheelchair in those days, he had to come home at night.

Mr. GOLDMAN: He had to come home because there were no accessible hotel rooms. This is light years, in legal terms, before there was an Americans with Disabilities Act, before there were civil rights for people with disabilities. He's doing this in the early '50s and '60s.

SIMON: He turned down a cabinet post under President Carter for reasons that it would be instructive for us to know now.

Mr. GOLDMAN: Yeah. He turned it down because at those days, there was no guarantee of health insurance if you went back. There was no Health Insurance Portability Act. His fabric of his life would've been at risk.

SIMON: Do you know what cabinet post he was offered?

Mr. GOLDMAN: I don't know for sure, but I think it was secretary of transportation. That would've been the natural thing. I do know that he did watch the 1968 election returns with Hubert Humphrey, and that had the election gone the other way, he would've been chief of staff. And I know also that Humphrey had promised him that one of the first executive orders would've been to make buildings accessible.

SIMON: Beginning in the 1970s, he would appear on the muscular dystrophy telethon with Jerry Lewis.

(Soundbite of Jerry Lewis telethon)

Mr. BOB SAMPSON (Former Vice President for Facilities, United Airlines): Jerry, you know, this is my 50th year in a wheelchair, and beginning 14 years ago, I have never stood taller than I have being with you in this cause this way.

SIMON: For somebody who didn't like to leave fingerprints, who was a private man, what was it like for him to go on the - I mean he'd became known as what, Jerry's older kid?

Mr. GOLDMAN: Jerry's big kid.

SIMON: Jerry's big kid. Yeah. What was it like for him to go on and talk to a national audience about himself?

Mr. GOLDMAN: It was extremely difficult, but I think he had a sense, by being out there, whether it be on the telethon or just going through an airport in a corporate suit, that he was a role model. He didn't want to be reminded. It wasn't a hero thing. He just wanted to do his thing. He wanted to quietly just go ahead and keep his eye on the mission. I mean, I feel like I touched greatness when I knew him.

SIMON: Charles Goldman, who was a friend and ally of Robert Sampson, who died of heart disease last weekend. Thanks very much.

Mr. GOLDMAN: Thank you, and thank you from the family.

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