The Sam Contakos I knew was not the same man whose cold eyes stared back at me from a 40-year-old police mug shot I pulled from The Tribune-Democrat’s archives.
I never met the Sam Contakos who was convicted of murder and spent time in prison.
The Sam who contacted me several years ago hoping to write occasional opinion columns on the dangers of drugs in society was humble, unassuming, compassionate.
Once a man of medicine, Sam believed strongly that legalizing marijuana would provide a gateway to deeper drug problems. A regular on the Editorial page, Sam also penned letters to the editor on the topics of politics and religion – or both.
At his invitation, I met with him numerous times in his downtown Johnstown apartment, shared a few of the powerful Manhattans he loved to mix, and had meaningful conversations about the state of the community he called home.
Sam Contakos passed away last week. I got the sad news from Pastor Ray Streets of Crucified Church in Woodvale, where a memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Sunday. Streets and Pastor Josh Knipple will officiate.
Streets recalled meeting Contakos through weightlifting and “our relationship grew to a deeper friendship because of our faith.”
“We read a lot and talked about what we read,” Streets said.
John G. “Jack” Herbein also met Sam through powerlifting.
Herbein learned that his friend had passed away when I called him to get his thoughts for this column.
“He was a good guy,” Herbein said. “I’ve known him for a pretty long time. He was a smart guy and a good writer.”
Herbein was a vice president with Metropolitan Edison when that company’s nuclear power plant on Three Mile Island melted down in 1979.
Contakos was enamored with Herbein’s stories of that experience, and was moved to tears in later years when reading Herbein’s accounts of the Three Mile Island incident, Herbein recalled.
Their last powerlifting competition together was a tournament last July.
“I was going to call and ask if he wanted to go again this year,” Herbein said. “I guess that’s not going to happen.”
Streets said he found Contakos’ life fascinating – the positive experiences and the personal struggles.
“You know those Dos Equis commercials with ‘the most interesting man in the world’? That’s how I thought of Sam,” Streets said. “He did some amazing things. He had breakfast with Albert Schweitzer. He knew the grandfather of (Britain’s) Prince Charles personally. And he knew Johnstown history better than anyone.”
The Tribune-Democrat’s clip files and microfilm editions include coverage of Sam’s arrest in connection with a 1978 fatal shooting in Fayette County, his 1979 jury conviction for murder in the first degree and his sentence of life in prison.
Among the old press clippings is a photo of that mid-40s Sam glaring at the camera – not the soft eyes I will associate with the older version of the man.
Streets said Contakos was in jail “for a number of years, maybe 11” – and got out on an appeal.
In his later years, Streets said, Contakos had a “strained and divided” relationship with members of his family.
But, the pastor said, Contakos embraced religion as a pathway out of darkness.
“He lived his faith,” Streets said.
“He loved the Lord.”
Contakos was “Greek orthodox to the core,” Streets said, but often hosted Bible study sessions with believers from various denominations in his home, attended contemporary services at Crucified Church and met with parishioners of Franklin Street United Methodist.
“He worked to see churches get together on their core values – their similarities,” Streets said.
Sam and I talked often about downtown landmarks that he passed on his travels – his shuffling navigation of the city’s ragged sidewalks, moving carefully with a cane.
“He loved Johnstown immensely,” Streets said. “He was a passionate man. He loved the city.”
Sam hoped to see the Ludwig House – headquarters for Clara Barton and the Red Cross following the 1889 flood – preserved for its historic value. And he saw no reason to spend money saving the crumbling Conrad Building down the street from his apartment.
He called me often to chat about current events, to ask about the news business, or just to say “how are you doing?” – his cellphone number easily recognizable on my caller ID.
I still have his last message on my office phone.
As he always did, he closed his message with: “Take care and God bless you.”
Same to you, Sam.