1980 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"I was taught to fight back and never accept 'no' for an answer."
Born with muscular dystrophy in 1925, Robert Sampson was raised in Chicago shortly before the Depression. In the financial chaos of the times, his parents lost their home and struggled to make ends meet. It took them four years to save enough money to buy a wheelchair for young Sampson. Because of his health problems, he started school several years late, but his teachers at the Jesse Spaulding School for the Handicapped had a strong influence on him. They encouraged him and challenged him to succeed. "I was taught to fight back and never to accept 'no' for an answer," says Sampson, who graduated at the top of his high school class.
Sampson hoped to be a lawyer and his strong academics earned him a scholarship. But long before there was a law to protect his rights, the school told him he "couldn't be an attorney in a wheelchair," and revoked his scholarship. Determined to not let his disability stop him, Sampson put himself through Loyola University and DePaul Law School. He worked nights as a hotel clerk and switchboard operator, earning 40 cents an hour.
After law school, he worked eight years for the city of Chicago's law department. William A. Patterson, founder and chairman of United Airlines, had heard of Sampson's achievements and personally offered him the opportunity to join United's law department. He moved up to become vice president of facilities and properties for United's Central Division and was named to the additional post of special assistant to the chairman in 1975.
During his career at United, Sampson was always at the forefront in pushing to hire the disabled and helped the airline come up with ways to better serve the disabled passenger. One project he started took inner city children and disabled youngsters on an hour's ride in a Boeing 727 to see the sights of Chicago from the air. Each Wednesday throughout the summer, about 100 boys and girls got aboard United Flight 001 for an unforgettable experience.
Sampson served as a member of the President's Commission on Employment of the Handicapped during five administrations. He was also a member of the board of the Muscular Dystrophy Association and participated in numerous Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethons. He received the Distinguished Alumnus Award from DePaul University Law School and received the FAA's Distinguished Service Award for promoting the accessibility of aircrafts for the disabled. He was especially proud of receiving United Airline's highest honor, the William A. Patterson Award.
When asked about his Horatio Alger Award, Sampson said, "It is an honor to be a part of this organization. The work the Association is doing to help our nation's most deserving youth get a college education is outstanding. I am proud to be a part of that."
Sampson said his life has been blessed by having loving parents and a supportive wife and three children. He believes that if he hadn't been given a chance to do a job as good as or better than the "so-called able-bodied person," he'd have spent most of his life in a nursing home. He said, "You have to believe in yourself and your abilities."* Deceased