Sam Anthony Brightened NARA

Today’s post comes from Rebecca Brenner Graham, a former 2015-2016 intern in the History Office at the National Archives in Washington, DC. Sam Anthony passed away last week after a long battle with cancer. This post was originally written in 2015 and recently edited. Sam asked we hold publication until after he was gone.

Sam at his desk, 2015. (Photo by Rebecca Brenner, National Archives)
Sam at his desk, 2015. (Photo by Rebecca Brenner Graham, National Archives)

He referred to Archives II in College Park, MD, as the “Glass Palace” and joked his biggest success was not getting fired.

He was Sam Anthony, special assistant to the Archivist of the United States.

Sam recalled that his high school history classes were “boring, plodding, and pedantic,” but he knew that there was more to history.

In college, at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, his medieval history professor captured students’ interest by lecturing without referring to notes, “talking like a televangelist” about the “gospel of medieval history.”

In 1991, Sam began working at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), where he worked from 8:45 a.m. to 9 p.m in the research room.

Ken Heger was the afternoon and evening supervisor who taught Sam how to research. Sam remembered that genealogy specialist Connie Potter was kind-hearted, and she taught him how to interact with people. In tandem, these mentors prepared Sam for a lifetime of public service.

Sam Anthony in 2003. (Photo by Earl MacDonald, National Archives)
Sam Anthony in 2003. (Photo by Earl McDonald, National Archives)

Then, in 1998, Sam began to manage the author lecture series as part of NARA’s public programs. Sam’s bookshelf remained full of books representing his experiences hosting that series.

He cherished when there was a “packed house,” and even more, when there was a thunderstorm, and the turnout was terrible, but those who came soaking wet had a wonderful time with the author.

He first met historian Allen Weinstein during that job. In 2005, when Weinstein became Archivist of the United States, he hired Sam as a special assistant. Sam also served as special assistant to Acting Archivist Adrienne Thomas and current Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero.

In 2012, Sam underwent his fourth surgery for oral cancer. Around this time, he took the initiative to establish and lead an exercise group, which he called “boot camp.”

Sam poses with a mask that doctors once used to blast radiation into his mouth and throat, 2015 (Photo by Rebecca Brenner, National Archives)
Sam poses with a mask that doctors once used to blast radiation into his mouth and throat, 2015 (Photo by Rebecca Brenner Graham, National Archives)

Being special assistant to the Archivist included giving tours to special guests, retrieving answers, and writing speeches.

For Sam, work was most meaningful when it helped the agency. He explained: “I have learned to check my ego at the door because here, ego means nothing. There are people more important than me here.”

Sam researched special guests and strove to accommodate their interests. He always considered: “How can I make that special guest feel welcome; how can we make it feel like their time has been well spent; and how can they walk away again, understanding who we are, what we do, and what we have?”

Sam valued his friends and allies. In a city of serial networking, Sam was a genuine builder of relationships. Colleagues called him a “uniter.”

Sam’s favorite parts of NARA were the records and the people. He emphasized that the reference archivists were some of the hardest working people he had ever met.

Sam Anthony at the National Archives July 4th celebration at Union Station, 7/4/2003. (National Archives Identifier: 66780456)

Sitting down for his oral history interview in summer 2015, he looked out his window, where he could see Pennsylvania Avenue from his desk, and exclaimed: “I’m sitting here, and you’re actually asking me questions. I’m humbled by it.”

In his oral history, Sam reflected on his mentors, his friends, his time in reference, and his time in the lecture program. He concluded: “I learn something every day, and I have no regrets.”

He added that working at NARA, he “still feels like a kid in a candy store.”

In the end, the National Archives functioned best with Sam Anthony there, and NARA shined brighter. The entire agency will miss him. 

7 thoughts on “Sam Anthony Brightened NARA

  1. So saddened by this news. Sam was a great colleague and a favorite of my kids for Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day.

  2. I just learned of Sam Anthony’s death from the feature in the New York Times. It took the wind out of me. Sam was tall, handsome, personable, and well-mannered. I was an obsessed researcher in the textual research room when he started working at NARA. Our paths crossed daily for six years as I researched records relating to slavery and the Reconstruction Era. He once called me ma’am, and I replied that I wasn’t old enough to be called that; and he remarked that he was showing me respect, although he knew I was only a few years his senior.
    One day I needed to view an original census volume, and needed special permission from an archivist to do so, which I received. Sam was the one to deliver it to me in the research room. I didn’t know how privileged I was to achieve this, and meeting Sam decades later, he not only recalled my full name, but refreshed my memory about that incident. By then he had risen to special assistant to the Archivist of the U.S. It was a position well-deserved. I felt like a proud “older sister” to him. I marveled at his success, and that I had “known him when.” He had phenomenal recall about dates, places, and events, and could tell a story that left you wanting to learn more. I am deeply saddened by his death, but am thankful that our paths crossed.

    1. He was a character to be sure. I knew Sam through the plays we worked on at The Little Theatre of Alexandria..and the many poker games I was part of at his abode in Alexandria. I was truly stunned and bereft at the sad news. He converted ne into a UNC Tarheel fan lol..and I cheer for them knowing he is ‘upstairs’ leading the cheering section in the clouds.

  3. Mu condolences to Sam’s family and especially to his new found father. At 71 years old I also found my sister and brothers for the first time in 2021. I had my sister and niece for 19 months. They both passed away with Covid within two weeks of each other last month. Thank God he found his father before he passed away. How blessed we were to connect with the other part of ourselves.

  4. I knew Sam Anthony only briefly, when he gave us, a group of amateur historians, a great lecture about NARA. Rest in peace, dear Mr. Sam Anthony, and thank you for last lesson of love and remembrance. Our condolences and love to your family!

  5. I knew Sam Anthony for many years…we were involved in local community theatre groups in Alexandria and Arlington, Virginia. – Sam on stage and me on one of the many “backstage” teams. He converted me into a UNC Tarheel fan….which was okay due to the fact that my #1 team Navy never played UNC. He taught me how to play poker..I swear he was a riverboat gambler in a previous life. I send my much belated but truly felt condolences to his family and friends. GO TARHEELS Miss you Sam.. Cece

  6. i met sam when he worked at the n.c. collection in wilson library at unc-chapel hill in the 1990s

    taken by his energy and commitment to n.c. history, i convinced him to intern at the n.c. museum of history
    in raleigh for the “tar heel junior historian.”

    i later visited him often in wilmington, virginia, and dc.

    my wife and i had a few beers with him shortly after he was first diagnosed and treated for oral cancer. he admonished us to visit our dentist regularly.

    we lost touch over the years. he did meet our two sons and gave us tours at nara.

    i miss his energy, enthusiasm, and joy of life.

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