Writer Elizabeth Mehren was invited by the College Communications Office to share memories of her son Sam, who was an enormously talented young journalist, and the educational and vocational search process that led him to Hampshire.
As a senior at Hingham High School, Sam Butterfield resolutely refused to apply to any colleges in his native Northeast. In fact he basically ruled out the entire East Coast, preferring to cast his academic gaze to the far West and to the Midwest—an area even more exotic, in some ways, to this born-and-bred New Englander.
"I've seen the East and I've seen the West," said Sam, a natural explorer who had begun traveling from East to West and back again while still an infant.
"Now," he declared, "it's time for me to see what's in the middle."
Sam's spirit of adventure took him to the University Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia, two hours from St. Louis. Sam, who began reporting for his local weekly in Hingham before he had a driver's license, earned a scholarship to the country's oldest school of journalism and found himself living in an honors dorm with the fully appropriate name of Mark Twain Hall.
Sam later wrote about his impulse to choose Missouri:
"My 17-year-old head envisioned itself on the banks of muddy rivers, riding along dirt paths in jostling, old pickup trucks blaring The Animals 'House of the Rising Sun,' while the friends I would make and I sipped cold, All-American beer, unapologetically ate red meat and all the while sparred about the upcoming election; whether it would be Romney or McCain, if Giuliani stood a chance, and if this captivating Obama guy could really win anyone over with all this hope he was railing about."
Within weeks, signs of a misfit were apparent. He complained that on football weekends, the campus turned into a cult: Everyone in screaming yellow T-shirts, blindly yelling for the home team. He worried that in class, most students did not challenge their professors: Their word was The Word—which was just not how Sam saw the world.
"Mom," he said in one phone call home, "half the girls on my floor are committed virgins for Christ."
I told him that was not how I remembered freshman year.
At Mizzou, Sam reported for the student newspaper, The Maneater. He made a pack of friends, most of them happy oddballs like himself. As a voracious reader with a passion for politics, one night he found himself debating the contents of a book called "What's the Matter With Kansas?" Sam and his friends decided to find out. So they drove to Kansas.
Sam lasted exactly one semester at Missouri. We were not sure whether to regard his move from Mizzou to Hampshire College as a step from the sublime to the ridiculous, or vice versa. In any case, he had once again demonstrated his ability to embrace and adapt to extremes. Sam never did anything halfway.
Thus the former Hingham High School Varsity baseball pitcher found himself at a school where the sole competitive sport was Ultimate Frisbee. He took one look at Hampshire's student publication and decided that a gig as a writer for something called "The Climax" might not enhance his rapidly burgeoning resume. So Sam marched over to the U-Mass/Amherst student newspaper and presented himself as a reporter. There was some consternation at that end—a Hampshire student, reporting for The Collegian?—but Sam, arguing the virtues of the five-college consortium, prevailed.
Campus newspaper nerds are a universal, and peculiar breed. Committing to a college daily means long days and nights in grungy conditions. It means working long after the local pizza deliveries have stopped. It means collapsing into some convenient chair and grabbing something resembling sleep before rushing off to a morning class, usually 15 minutes late. At U-Mass, it meant an exorbitant number of parking tickets for a Hampshire student named Sam Butterfield.
Sam's colleagues at The Collegian said they had never met anyone who took news so seriously. Sam was tenacious and driven as he pursued stories about the five colleges and about the communities around these disparate institutions. Casual as Sam may have been about other aspects of his schoolwork?a Hampshire professor once described one portfolio he submitted as resembling "the work of a crack addict"--he was a fanatic about correct punctuation, grammar, usage and most of all, accuracy, on the student paper.
Meantime Sam interned as a reporter at the Springfield Republican. He and his buddy from Hingham High and The Collegian, Nick Bush, headed off to Hanoi to work as editors at Vietnam.net, a government-owned news outlet. This Communist-controlled publication was an eye-opener for two young believers in the First Amendment. Suddenly they saw wanton appropriation of news and information from sources all over the world, with no attribution whatsoever in Vietnam.net. Sam and Nick had a strong lesson in the rights and responsibilities of a free press, and what happens when those rights and responsibilities are ignored.
Sam sold a wonderful story about his travels (and travails) in Vietnam to the Los Angeles Times, for which he had written previously. The following summer, Sam was a news reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. One of his final pieces for the paper's educational supplement dealt with the challenges of being a transfer student.
"I come from the type of town that sends almost all of its high school graduates to somewhat (but not too) prestigious northeastern liberal arts colleges," Sam wrote. "You know the ones I'm talking about: they're in Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio. The ones you read about in the Princeton Review guidebooks that Volvo -driving suburban parents sport stickers of, the kind where everyone wants to 'go into business,' which roughly translated means owning a yacht and belonging to a golf club."
At Hampshire, he realized, "I was home, back in a place of skepticism and mistrust for outsiders, and it took me pushing my comfort zone and trusting my conscience to guide me there.
By way of advice, Sam then offered the following admission:
"My overarching point here is to not listen to the guidebooks; don't buy into whether a school has three stars for quality of life and two-and-a-half for its fitness center. Absolutely do not accept the talking points preferred by the up-beat guide with the lanyard, walking you and your star-struck parents past glistening new buildings and taking you into the one dorm that isn't contaminated with asbestos. Don't take your family friends' advice about how great his alma mater is, don't pay attention to whether your guidance counselor says five students from your high school went to x place and loved it. They are not you; only you can know your voice and understand the intangible factors which make a place right for you.
"Trust your gut, take risks, make a mistake in where you go initially, and you will certainly learn more about yourself and where you belong than if you take the safe route and wind up somewhere excruciatingly adequate. I'm not encouraging you to transfer, but being somewhere that jolts you into self-discovery and teaches you what you really need is invaluable. For me, at least, it took ending up somewhere totally wrong for me to learn what was right. And I did buy into all of those arbitrary metrics and cue-card anecdotes about history, architecture, GPA and SAT. Those are all distractions.
"Trust your gut, take risks, let down some people in your life who think they know what's right for you. No one can know the qualities, characteristics and subtle motifs which make a place feel right, and even sometimes you can't until you've taken a gamble on an experience. I don't like gambling with money very much, but for the days I have on this earth, I'll always take a risk on an experience and trust I'll learn something and wind up closer to where I belong because of it. Push your comfort zone in college, you can always go back."
Sam died May 4, 2013, at his home in Boston. His death came exactly one day short of the year anniversary of the accident on the Hampshire campus in which Sam ruptured his C6/C7 vertebrae and was left paralyzed for life.
Clinging for life for two weeks in an ICU in Springfield, Sam was intubated and unable to speak. This, alone, was a form of torture for a young man who seemed to have been speaking in full paragraphs since emerging from the womb. At his insistence, a large plastic letter board was produced. Since Sam had little hand strength in the aftermath of his accident, a pointer was jury-rigged with an upside-down toothbrush and a vast wad of gauze coated in adhesive tape. Sam began "speaking" by tapping, at a rate almost no one could keep up with.
Sam received his Hampshire diploma in a small ceremony at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston. His family was in attendance, along with Hampshire President Jonathan Lash, trustee Sig Roos and Viveca Greene, Sam's Division III professor.
He spent his final year working tirelessly to regain sensation and to increase his mobility. He faced endless physical challenges and spent far too much of his last year in Boston-area hospitals. He kept himself occupied with "light" reading such as David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest." He delighted in the companionship of dear friends, seemingly numberless in Sam's case. He routinely creamed his mother at cutthroat Scrabble games. Even in his wheelchair he conquered Boston by "T." For his last Christmas, he asked for a membership in the Museum of Fine Arts, which he frequented regularly.