Sampson retires after 50 years at the Salem Civic Center & Salem Stadium

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Scott Sampson has been in charge of taking care of Salem Stadium for the
past 27 years. PHOTO BY BRIAN HOFFMAN

It’s only fitting that Scott Sampson picked 2018 to retire. It’s the 50th anniversary of the Salem Civic Center and he’s been around for all 50 years.

Sampson’s last day as a full-time employee of the City of Salem was Friday, March 30. He made it clear he didn’t want a party to commemorate the occasion, as that’s just his nature. Sampson has always been the guy in the background making sure everything goes smoothly, never looking for personal attention.

He’s been in charge of Salem Stadium, one of the crown jewels of the Salem sports haven bordering Texas Street, since 1991. So, it was fitting friends and family honored him with a luncheon on his last day, a modest buffet spread on tables in the home locker room at the stadium.

“It’s kind of a mixed feeling,” said Sampson as he loaded pictures into his car. “I really wasn’t looking to retire, but I’ll be 62 in May and I’ll be eligible for early Social Security and retirement benefits. It all falls right around my birthday.”

Scott worked right up until the end. He was at Salem Memorial Ballpark last week helping refocus the lights to meet professional baseball standards and getting the park ready for today’s Red Sox opening day. Not many people realize he was also in charge of the baseball stadium, trying to keep everything up to Salem standards with an ever dwindling crew of helpers.

Sampson probably wouldn’t be retiring right now if not for a bout with Neuropathy, a condition that causes nerve pain and numbness, most often in the hands and feet. Scott has had surgery on his hands twice and he’s had four falls in the last six months as a result of numbness in his legs and feet. He’s been banned from climbing ladders.

“I’m supposed to be on light duty,” he said. “I’m usually pretty good in the morning, but depending on what I’m doing it gets worse as the day goes on. If I use hand tools it slows me down, and I have a tendency to drop stuff. When I go home and relax I have to lay on the floor because the sitting position is painful on my legs.”

As a condition of his retirement Scott is supposed to stay completely away from Salem Stadium and the Salem Civic Center for 30 days, beginning this week. That’s going to be odd for a guy who has been on the grounds for virtually his entire life. He grew up there, literally, as his family had a house on the corner of Fisher Avenue and the Boulevard, right across the street from where the Salem Civic Center was being built when Scott was a kid. It was only natural that Scott and his brothers, Sammy and Steve, found work at the new facility.

“The first event at the civic center was ‘Holiday on Ice’ and I sold balloons,” he remembers. “I was 11 years old and the balloons had Mickey Mouse in the middle and another balloon around it. They called them ‘Mickey Mouse in the Glass House,’ and I was carrying about 40 of them while trying to collect money and hang on to the others. They were filled with helium, and if you let one get away they took it out of your pay.”

Before the civic center opened Scott had been the visiting “bat boy” for Salem Rebels baseball games at Salem Municipal(now Kiwanis) Field, so it was only natural that he caught on as “stick boy” with the new Salem Rebels Eastern Hockey League team. He was right in the middle of it all as hockey came to the Roanoke Valley for the first time, serving as the visiting stick boy while brother Sammy worked the home side.

“Colin Kilburn was the coach back then,” said Sampson. “He was a character. If they weren’t playing good they’d go into the locker room between periods and he would say, ‘Scotty, would you please leave the room’.”

Sampson did it all in the early years of the Civic Center, selling programs and concessions, doing odd jobs and being responsible for the “part time crew” that would take the floor up and down over the ice.

“There were about 16 workers that would change the arena between hockey and basketball,” he said. “I was in charge, and for every four hours I worked I’d get an extra hour of pay($2.25) for bringing in the part-timers, who were usually football players.”

Scott graduated from Andrew Lewis High School in 1974 and went to work full-time at the civic center in August of that year. He was the guy on the “Zamboni” that resurfaced the ice between periods of the hockey games.

“I used to get heckled a lot,” he said. “They’d yell, ‘hey, you missed a spot’ and other stuff. On the first pass you were only about four feet from the first row.”

Back then the late Jack Dame was managing the civic center, and he was a pillar of the community and a big reason why Salem is the sports minded city it is today. Carey Harveycutter, who ran the civic center for many years, learned the trade under Dame and speaks highly of him to this day.

“You always knew exactly where you stood with Jack,” said Sampson. “I always considered him to be the consummate Southern Gentleman. Not many people have to work on Christmas, but he always insisted the civic center be open for public skating on Christmas Day. Then he’d have all the people who were working over to his house and Mrs. Dame would make us a Christmas dinner.”

Back then the civic center had eight full-time employees and 16 part-timers, much more than today.

“There was so much more to do when we had ice,” said Sampson. “Jack died in 1983 and that was the last year we had ice. When the hockey team moved to Roanoke it was so expensive it wasn’t feasible to run the equipment.”

Salem Stadium opened in August of 1985, on the other side of a big parking lot behind the civic center. At that time it was under the supervision of the Street Department and the late Jim Taliaferro, who was mayor, wasn’t happy about that. The late Bud Hale had just retired from the Water Department and it was decided to put him in charge of Salem Stadium. He did those duties until 1991, when Sampson took over. He’s been there ever since and his job went beyond maintaining the stadium, which was in essence a full-time job in itself.

“In the off-season I’d work big events at the civic center, and I still enjoyed working over there,” he said.

Sampson has seen a lot of entertainers come and go in the past 50 years. He remembers working the “KISS” concert the first year they went on tour.

“I just thought they were another band, and then they came out of the locker room with all that makeup and stuff and I remember thinking ‘what the #@!! is that!!” he said.

“The only time I was awestruck was when Muhammad Ali was here. He came by me and I gave him a wave and he looked at me and gave me one back. He couldn’t shake my hand because he had his gloves on.”

Scott has countless stories from his days at the civic center and stadium, like the time he opened the door to Kenny Rogers’ dressing room on a cold and windy night.

“He was playing solitaire on the other side and the cards flew everywhere,” he said.

He remembers being hugged by a very inebriated Bob Seger, and visits from top notch groups like the Marshall Tucker Band and Three Dog Night.

“Black Oak Arkansas played here so often we called them the ‘house band’,” said Sampson.

Certainly he’s going to miss the excitement. Scott has done a tremendous job keeping Salem Stadium in great shape for the Stagg Bowl and Salem High football and other events that grace the turf, be it grass or artificial.

He was a favorite of the NCAA Division III football committee, who gave him a commemorative ring at halftime of the last Stagg Bowl held in Salem last December. There were 25 Stagg Bowls held in Salem since 19993 and he was in charge of painting the field and getting the place ready for every one.

Many times the job called for long hours, and now Scott’s wife Robin will surely see more of him at their home on Martin Lane in Salem. They have two children, both graduates of Salem High. Samantha is a graduate of Emory & Henry College, where she played soccer, and is now a “character attendant” at Disney World in Orlando, which is only fitting since dad sold those Mickey Mouse balloons 50 years ago. Son Hunter is a student at East Tennessee State University, where he’s a standout on the track team.

The position of his replacement has been advertised, and the person who gets that job will surely be calling Scott on occasion to tap into the knowledge he’s accumulated in 50 years of working at the complex. He’ll be missed, and his contributions to Salem will long be remembered.