Bishop Sample speaks to middle schoolers during a 2011 conference in Marquette.
At age seven months, Alexander King Sample III was diagnosed with spinal meningitis. It was touch and go, with high fever and a coma that lasted three days. He pulled through, some say miraculously.
His relieved godmother said, “God spared this child for a reason. Someday we’ll find out what it is.”
Then again, if you ask his two loving older sisters, they remember him as a typical impish little brother — who happened to grow up well and become Archbishop of Portland.
He was born Nov. 7, 1960 in Kalispell, a scenic town set by a lake in rugged western Montana. When he was seven, the family moved to Las Vegas. In many ways, the Samples were a typical Catholic household. All three children went to Catholic grade school and high school. The family attended Mass on Sundays. Alex was an altar boy.
His father, a banker named Alex Sample Jr., had a tendency to play practical jokes. Once at a restaurant, when his wife went to the powder room, he snuck a few handfuls of silverware into her coat pocket. At the door, he pretended to discover her malfeasance and told the maître d' that he just couldn't bring her anywhere. Joyce Sample, a good sport, objected but also laughed along at the joke.
Mrs. Sample, 84, tells the story of her son's one scrape with the law, in second grade. He and a friend became enamored with Hot Wheels cars and began taking them from a drug store. The proprietors nabbed the lads and called their parents. Other than that, young Alex was a helpful boy, says his mother.
In the view of his sisters, he was what younger brothers have been since the dawn of time: annoying even if amusing.
"He was just a typical, normal brother," says Marti Sample, eldest of the three Sample siblings. She teaches special education in the Salt Lake City area. "My sister and I would pick on him and he would say, 'Just wait until I get bigger.' And he did."
As a boy, he was interesting in science and then photography. He built his own darkroom. He and a friend watched Star Wars so often that they memorized dialogue.
"It was evident early that he was very very intelligent," says his other sister, Barb Krieber of Lake Ann, Mich.
"He was a pretty shy and quiet," adds Krieber, a wife and mother of two who is assistant manager of a hospital cardiac unit. "He had a select group of friends; a lot of those friends he still has today."
As he grew taller and more thoughtful, he quietly began pondering priesthood.
Then came news that his parents would be moving to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where his father had been offered a job as president of the bank in Houghton, a town on Lake Superior. Alex would stay in Las Vegas with family friends to finish out his senior year with the class of 1978.
With his parents living someplace he had never heard of, and his sisters away at college, the boy realized something: he had long relished being close to the Mass and admired the priests he knew.
“I think from those earliest days I had some inkling I wanted to be a priest, but that was mixed in with all kinds of other ambitions and desires,” Archbishop Sample recalls. One of the priests he respected, a teacher of German at Bishop Gorman High, surprised him. The priest told the 17-year-old boy: “You have a vocation to the priesthood.”
With that in the back of his mind, he set out for college at Michigan Tech, in the same town where his parents lived. He had always excelled at math and science. He declared a major in metallurgy, a hot career at the time. He prepared for work in physical metallurgy, which involves engineering materials for specific applications, like airplane wings. He worked not only with metals, but with plastics, ceramics and polymers. The field is part engineering, part chemistry. Meanwhile, he served in the Reserve Officers Training Corps for part of his college years.
The far north was familiar to his parents. His father was from Minnesota, his mother from Wisconsin. The family had a 40-foot wooden Chris Craft boat and often convened for summer runs on Lake Superior. His father, who had been a Navy SeaBee in Guam during World War II, kept a detailed ship's log. In the early 1980s, Alex Sample Jr. was diagnosed with cancer.
Meanwhile, his son went on to graduate study in metallurgy. In the middle of this, young Alex began to sense more seriously that God was inviting him to be a priest. As a youth, he had claimed the English-Scottish heritage of his father and not his mother's Polish ancestry. Once Karol Wojtyla became Pope John Paul, being Polish sounded a lot better. He admired the youthful pope who seemed to be energizing the church's mission. The young man wanted to be on that team.
With a master’s degree in hand and thoughts of perhaps pursuing a post-doctorate degree that could lead to prestigious research and teaching possibilities, he stunned professors by announcing his plans to prepare for possible entry into seminary.
He completed studies in philosophy at the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. in 1986 before entering the Pontifical College Josephinum Seminary in Columbus, Ohio, to study for the priesthood for the Diocese of Marquette.
For a time, his father was not supportive of his plans for priesthood but then became a major backer. The elder Sample made it to his son's 1989 deacon ordination, but then cancer weakened him seriously. Invited by the dying man, the young deacon sat bedside and helped plan a funeral. Alex Sample Jr. would not live to see his son ordained a priest on June 1, 1990 at St. Peter Cathedral in Marquette.
After ordination, Father Sample served as associate pastor of the cathedral from 1990-93, and as pastor of St. George Parish in Bark River, Sacred Heart Parish in Schaffer and St. Michael Parish in Perronville from 1993-94.
From 1994-96, he was assigned to graduate studies in Canon Law at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) in Rome.
He's a man who likes to stroll and experience his surroundings. While living with a family in Siena to learn Italian, he'd often get a piece of fruit and a loaf of bread and trek all over that walled, hilly city.
In Rome, he would walk in the evenings, taking delight in seeing older couples arm-in-arm. On Sunday mornings, he'd go by foot to St. Peter's Basilica to concelebrate Mass at the Altar of the Chair.
He received a Licentiate in Canon Law in 1996 and returned to the Diocese of Marquette to assume duties in the chancery office. He was also canonical pastor at St. Christopher Parish in Marquette. That, he says, allowed him to “keep one foot in the pastoral world.” There were tough days when he thought he could have been happy just serving as a pastor.
For 11 years, he owned a miniature schnauzer named Heidi. She would ride in the car with him and sleepily reach across the seat to paw his leg until he scratched her behind the ears. Heidi died not long ago and he figures there may not be room in his new life for a dog.
At the time of his appointment as Bishop of Marquette in 2005, he had a slew of chancery assignments. By the time he was named Archbishop of Portland, he was on a number of national committees and was gaining a national reputation.
Family say he's still a regular man. Each year, he goes on a men-only fishing trip. He loves the outdoors and often travels with his sister Marti. Last summer, the siblings took a whitewater rafting trip on the Salmon River in Idaho.
"We're so proud of him," Marti says. She is delighted that his new placement has brought him west. She is planning a move to Portland to be closer to him and their mother, who will also be moving from Michigan.
Krieber, who says she still teases her brother, explains that the Sample family has always been close. Everyone, including the archbishop, has a good sense of humor, she says. "He is very down to earth," she says. "There are no airs about him. He's a great brother, very generous."
Krieber calls her archbishop-sibling one of the most committed people she knows. "When he starts something, he gives 110 percent to it and sees it through to the end," she says. "He nurtures his faith and wants it to grow. But you know, to Marti and me, he's always just our our little brother."
Though he left the engineering track almost 30 years ago, Archbishop Sample has maintained friends from the era. Three buddies from graduate school attended his priesthood ordination and bishop's ordination. They plan to come to Portland for his April 2 installation.
When the foursome convenes, it's like a day has hardly gone by. They quip, pull pranks and laugh. The wife of one man once told the archbishop, "You haven't changed a bit." For the churchman, who sometimes gets called "Your Grace" and on occasion has grown men kiss his ring, that was welcome praise.
— Ed Langlois of the Catholic Sentinel contributed to this story.