by Ben Leopold
Samuel Cooklyn Leopold was born to his parents, Bernice and Herb on July 24th in 1948. It's worth noting that his mother's father passed away on the day of his birth and she always said that he had come to her in a vision as Sam was coming into the world.
The youngest of three siblings, he grew up in a suburban neighborhood of Philadelphia with his two sisters, Marjorie and Bobby.
At 8 years old, Sam began attending a two month sleep away camp every summer in Algonquin Park, in Ontario Canada. This was likely where he first developed his love of being outdoors as well as feeling the joys of living as part of a community. He told me many stories of week-long canoe trips, rowing all day, portaging from lake to lake and sleeping in tents at night or sometimes right out under the stars. Singing camp songs whenever the opportunity arose and working together preparing for meals and cleaning up afterwards, he talked about Camp Arowhon with great fondness and referred to his time there as formative.
In the summer of 1960, when Sam was 12, his family moved to Evanston Illinois, a suburb of Chicago where his father had become president of a prominent camera company. That year, instead of heading home to Philly, Sam returned from camp to a new environment and to what would wind up being a very tough year ahead. A year fraught with a myriad of challenges, both at school and at home.
In the classroom, Sam suffered from learning challenges and, at the time, he was simply labeled a bad student. His academic struggles along with several schoolyard fights eventually led his parents to sending him off to St. John’s Military Academy in Delafield, Wisconsin at the age of 13.
His time in the military academy was not happy. He didn't fit in and he paid the price in disciplinary measures and social confrontations. He was expelled within about a year and he was headed back home to Evanston.
It was upon his return home that Sam met Ernestine. His parents had hired her as a live-in housekeeper and her influence on Sam's life would forever change him. Ernestine was from New Orleans, around 45 or 50. She cooked and cleaned for the family and when she wasn’t working, she played her guitar and listened to her music. Often, Sam and his sisters were allowed to listen in. She would become Sam’s first guitar teacher and by the time he was fourteen, he knew all about the Chicago blues scene and was playing the likes of Muddy Waters, Big Bill Broonsy and Lead Belly in his bedroom at night. It was during this time that he also developed an interest in poetry and in particular, the work of Walt Whitman.
Sam spent 9th and 10th grade attending Evanston high School in Illinois but mostly, focusing on practicing his guitar and on his growing interest in the civil rights movement.
By junior year, still disinterested in schoolwork, Sam was sent to the Stockbridge School, a progressive boarding school for kids more like Sam, kids who were struggling with big, competitive public schools. Stockbridge had small classes and a lot of attention to humanities and the arts. Sam was comfortable there…over the years he spoke to me a lot about his time and experiences there.
Sam graduated from Stockbridge in ’67. At graduation, Sam was asked if he would like a summer job -- accompanying a group of younger Stockbridge School girls on their trip around Europe for two months. He took the gig. His responsibility was to keep them out of trouble – which was no easy task. It was Sam’s first taste of major European cities, and the “travelin’ man’ he later wrote and sang about was born that summer.
He tried his hand at college for a short period, enrolling himself at Franconia, but after a few months, Sam found himself at a crossroads. The Vietnam conflict was underway and the draft was upon him. An existential dilemma for a man with a fundamental distaste for war. A student deferment seemed like the best way to avoid the draft.
Sam wanted to write music, sing, play his guitar and travel. That was his ambition. In early spring of 1968, with a one way plane ticket, Sam flew off to Europe. He had some money that would last him until he could figure out how to earn his own way. He flew out the same day Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis.
I don’t know how long Sam stayed in Europe, earning food money and shelter by street singing and passing the hat. I do know that he eventually made his way to Greece. It was there that he cracked open a book by Nikos Kazenakis, entitled St Francis, about the early Christian Saint known for his commitment to peace, kindness and service towards all living beings. He read all 600 pages sitting on a roof in The Placa in Athans across from the Acropolis.
From Greece, Sam made his way to an Israeli Kibbutz which offered him a way to support himself and explore the idea of community life. He worked as a cowherd. Picture him – long legged Sam, eighteen or nineteen, long hair, thin face, playing his guitar whenever he had time. He wrote a love song many of you may have heard, ultimately entitled “The Widow of Aqaba,” about an Israeli man and a Palestinian woman who fall in love.
In the years from 1968 through 1973, Sam spent much of his time traveling Europe and the world. It was through the experience of playing on street corners and small music venues that he developed his "performance persona".
He followed the tourists. Summers on the Mediterranean in France, Italy, Spain and Israel. Travelling up north in Holland and Scandinavia; Winters at the ski areas in Switzerland and Germany. In Geneva, he worked the cafes of the old city. In Paris, he sang in the cafes of the West Bank and Momatre. Those years were "earn-as-you-learn" and every time he opened his guitar case, he felt stage fright, wondering if he could raise a crowd and if any of them would throw money into his open guitar case. In Jerusalem, 1973, he met a piano player named Jeff Labes who had been touring and performing with Van Morrison during the Moondance era. They traveled and played together until Sam moved back to the States at 22. Jeff would ultimately become Sam's producer once he signed with Mercury Records.
Sam returned stateside to a thriving music scene in Chicago and he had the chops to play some of the best clubs in town by that point. One night, he was approached by two A&R executives from Mercury Records and this meeting led to him signing a record deal and hitting the road once again. Now well established as a professional musician, he played concerts and clubs on bills with the likes of Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt, Vassar Clemens, Pete Seeger, Charles Mingus, Steve Martin and the list goes on. Sam continued to pursue his music career over the coming years although I believe his character led him to seek a different life at that time and he wound up moving away from that world when it came time to raise a family.
In 1976, Sam met my mother, Lesley in NYC through a mutual friend in the music agency world. Lesley was a career actress and Sam was still playing out on tour with his album signed through Mercury Records, on the road a lot. Within 3 years the two had moved to Brooklyn, were married and had baby Ben (me).
In 1986, the three of us moved to Garnerville, a working class neighborhood in North Rockland so they could put me in the Waldorf School here. Over the next decade, he was commuting daily to midtown Manhattan where he had carved out a niche in the advertising space within the magazine industry. This new career path was a natural fit for Sam, as a songwriter and a poet, his artistic abilities transferred easily into the commercial world of marketing. He was driven by the impulse to provide for his new, young family and had the background of a wordsmith to help him through the initial learning curve. By his second year at Woman's Day Magazine, Sam was put in charge of creating and producing original stage productions for the annual trade shows, typical to the add world at that time.
In the summer of 1991 Sam and Lesley were separated and a new chapter began in Sam's life. Moving from North Rockland to Chestnut Ridge, I could now walk to Green Meadow and HE entered a period of SHARED custody and responsibility for me. This, in part, allowed space for Sam to consider what he now wanted to fill his time with. Starting slowly and building organically, he began volunteering and taking on responsibilities, here at the Fellowship Community.
We moved to the Fellowship sometime around 1992. For the first time in many years, Sam had the opportunity to rebuild a life centered around service and community. He absolutely loved it and would often tell me how lucky he felt for having found such an ideal environment to raise a son in and to fulfill his deep need to serve something bigger than himself. As a young teenager, I'll admit that I was not too happy about the work schedule or having to cope with the vulnerability of being part of a community and everyone seeming to know our business. That said, I am endlessly grateful for his efforts to put me in the best possible situation he could figure. To this day, I draw so much from the experiences I had growing up here for that time. Indeed, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence but his intention in exposing me to the real life skills I learned here has carried me through many turbulent times.
I remember the first time I saw him with Nancy. They were sitting "hand in hand" on a little bench in front of the Mercury Press and as I watched, that relationship blossomed into a marriage over the course of the following 4 years. I remember him telling me about dancing with her on New Years and being awestruck when he watched her listen to music. "You should see how she digs it" he would say. I knew he had found a soulmate and although it was his thing and not mine, I felt a sense of relief.
Dad lived and worked at the Fellowship with sincere joy for many years to come. When he told me one day that he and Nancy were planning a move to Japan with Niko, my step brother, I was surprised but also excited for him. It was the first time in my life that I saw that traveler's spirit come out and be allowed to shine.
For 3 years, Sam, Nancy and Niko lived on the Northern island of Hokkaido, Japan. He performed in bars till 4:00 a.m. all weekend and slowly nursed back to life, the performer within…while immersing himself entirely during the week, in helping to start an intentional community in the small village they lived in. This is where he discovered his love of teaching and working with those whom his presence would be most helpful for.
They then moved to Australia where Sam spent a year and a half fine-tuning his act for an English speaking audience and recording an album again after so many years. I remember him telling me stories of rowing his canoe to a Friday night gig, keeping an eye out for deadly spiders, developing relationships with previously unknown, far flung relatives and overall…living a fulfilling life in the Australian Outback.
Upon returning once again to the states, Sam performed regularly as a part of the Songwriters Guild of America. He played writer's showcases at the Red Lion Restaurant On Bleecker Street, held regular gigs at The Black Whale and The Starving Artist in City Island and continued to find his way into the world of music therapy.
As he began to work at different types of venues, schools and elderly care facilities, an authentic love for the service was cultivated and flourished. When he began his work at the Otto Specht School, the meaning of his life's work came very clearly into focus. Those who knew him, both personally and professionally will always remember him as a teacher and a caregiver. This is his legacy.
Sam was a complicated man. I had the great honor of knowing him on so many different levels. The greatest gift he ever gave me was to show through example that one not only could, but should continue to do the work on and with themselves for the duration. He taught me to put one foot in front of the next and to never settle for the bologna. He helped me understand that being present is a choice we make every moment and that living in fantasy will never quite do the trick…although it may feel good. He met every man , woman and child squarely at eye level and gave us all the gift of his sincere and committed presence.
Thank you very much.
- Ben Leopold, Sam's loving son
To make a gift to the Fellowship Community in honor of Sam Leopold please visit