Portrait of a millionaire

Fifty years ago Dick Sampson bought a struggling country market at Fairfield Center, Maine, just outside Skowhegan, and with an exceptional flair for management he soon owned a chain of groceries which, at the even half century, has ceased to be. Over a weekend, 34 Sampson Supermarkets in Maine and New Hampshire were absorbed into the Shop 'n Save conglomerate and every vestige of Dick's one-time ownership disappeared. One of those things, and it had to happen , but Dick was an unusual man and the end of his enterprise should have our attention. I knew Dick, and something he told me long ago rivals the best lines of Horatio Alger, where patience and struggle are rewarded by wealth and fame.

Dick was a ''sparks,'' the esoteric name for a wireless operator in the merchant marine. As he plied the oceans, his dreams were landward, and he dit-dit-dah'd with his heart set on owning a country store. He knew the store - the one he finally came to own at Fairfield Center - but he wasn't to have it for a little time yet. When he felt he had enough money saved for the down payment, he left the sea, took an option, and went to a bank in Skowhegan to borrow the rest. The banker will be nameless here, but he was a big wheel in Somerset County in those days. He imprudently decided not to undignify himself by nonsense with this upstart young man who presumed to quit the sea to sell groceries. This was by no means the only mistake this banker ever made, but it was his biggest.

Dick, crushed, signed up for another trick at sea, and stayed with his Morse code until he had money enough to buy the store without borrowing. Further, this soured him with banks, bankers, and banking, and although he was soon to be a ''millionist,'' he never stepped into a bank again and never again gave the time of day to a banker. From the beginning, he contracted with his wholesale grocery company (Hannaford Brothers) to keep his books, his inventory, and his finances in order. Dick, the truth is, never knew how much he was worth, but Hannaford Brothers did.

Dick was as odd as a three-dollar bill. His friendships were firm and lasting , but he could be equally firm in the other direction. He was a fine-looking young man, ready to smile, but plenty of people felt he smiled and smiled to be a villain. His abilities were acknowledged, but . . . .

As his first store succeeded and he began to build his chain, he moved his headquarters to Skowhegan so that banker could look every day and hate himself, and over his store he had a plush conference room that, for splendor, rivaled the Spielbank at Baden-Baden. The long mahogany table would seat all the managers of his many stores in red leather chairs, and the deliberations were lighted by hanging chandeliers of imported Austrian crystal. Dick was down to earth about moving groceries, but he presided in state.

It was when he entered politics that I interviewed him for a ''profile,'' and although several people told me he was hard to get along with, he received me graciously and confided. We went up to his conference room and sat, the two of us, at his long table. The ''politics'' amounted to a seat on the superintending school committee of Skowhegan. He felt he could apply some of his business acumen to education, and he did in a manner that pleased the taxpayers, if not the school professionals. When he announced, later, that he would run for the Maine Senate from Somerset County, the smart word was that he couldn't make it because of his disposition and his lack of popularity. Having gained a place on the ballot, he took off on an extended visit to the USSR, and was in Moscow on election day. He won, handily. But this was to climax his career; Dick passed on soon after that, still a young man.

Until last fall, his memorial was the bright ''Sampson's'' on his stores, kept in operation by his wholesaler. The Horatio Alger line came during that interview. ''Dick,'' I said, ''I'm told that you have 22 stores, and before profits take $100 a week from each store as your salary.''

He said, ''That's not true. I have 23 stores.''

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