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A Generous Life: W. James Samford Jr.

By: Wayne Greenhaw
Reviewed by: Jim Buford
River City Publishing, 2009
$29.95, Hardcover

From the early days of the republic, the entrepreneur who started with very little other than a vision and a strong work ethic and founded a successful enterprise was the classic American Success Story. Part of the tradition was to raise children and give them certain advantages not available to those from families of lesser means with the idea that they would take over and run the enterprise, or otherwise become contributing members of society and bring credit to the family name. This was not the way things usually worked out, and in many cases the children never amounted to very much and the name faded into obscurity. On the other hand, there are examples of families in which each succeeding generation seemed to rise to challenge and achieve their destiny in life—such as the Samfords of Alabama.

The saga of this family began with William James Samford, who was a successful attorney and governor of Alabama. He took to heart the words of Luke 12:48 that “To whom much has been given, much is expected,” and he ensured that the virtues of hard work, service to others, duty to country, and standing up for what’s right were passed on to his children and grandchildren. In A Generous Life, Wayne Greenhaw chronicles the life and times of his great-grandson, William James (Jimmy) Samford Jr.

A few years ago my friend Grant Davis, the Secretary to the Board of Trustees at Auburn University, called me and suggested that I needed to spend about thirty minutes with Samford, the President Pro Tem of the Board. It was one of those occasions where the Auburn faithful were doing what we do best, which is to fight among ourselves. Auburn was having a crisis and the trustees had either come with the solution or were part of the problem, depending on which side you were on. I considered myself part of the “loyal opposition.” Our thirty minute meeting lasted most of the morning, and Samford listened to my opinions, answered my questions, shared information, took some credit, and accepted some blame. We disagreed on several things, but when he said, “I have to do what I think is right,” I believed him. Samford said we should talk some more and asked if he could take me to lunch the next time he was in Auburn. Shortly after our meeting, he learned he had an incurable illness and only lived a few more months. I never saw him again.

Reading this illuminating and sympathetic biography, it seemed almost like Samford did take me to lunch, and we decided to get together again for a beer and some barbeque, and then made sure we kept in touch. Greenhaw captures the small town values and virtues of Samford’s upbringing, his college years at Auburn where the iconic administration building with its famous clock tower, William James Samford Hall, didn’t cut him any slack, and his decision to serve in the Air Force, although the idea that young men had a “military obligation” was no longer fashionable.

Samford’s later life is seen through the metaphor of political machinations that are always part of the scene in which Samford was a major player. As a prominent attorney and power broker, his reputation for playing hardball was fine with him, but he preferred not to call attention to his charitable endeavors and many acts of kindness. How Samford operated, especially when he had to make difficult decisions involving the university he loved, was especially interesting.

When I finished the book, my sense was that in all things Samford did what he believed was right. Samford had a story that deserved to be told, and Greenhaw tells it well. June 2009

Jim Buford is a management consultant whose published creative work includes essays, short stories, and social history. He presently serves as president of the Alabama Writers’ Forum Board of Directors.

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