Samuel Leighton died on September 13, 2010, surrounded by his family, at his home in Edgartown, Massachusetts. He was 86.
Sam was born in September 1924 to Charles Leighton Sr. and Florence “Mae” Leighton. He developed the same natural sense of adventure that people had always seen in his grandfather, Levi Jackson, which together with his incredible energy, commitment to family and community, and his sense of humor would define his life. His family, as the years went on, would groan and complain as he told and retold jokes until he was laughing hysterically. Despite the pleas of his wife and children, no Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas morning, or family gathering of any kind would ever pass without Sam telling a long, “funny” story that would unite the family, even if only to gang up on him.
Sam spent his childhood in Edgartown where he attended both the Edgartown Elementary School and Edgartown High School. He then went to Wilbraham Academy where he received a varsity letter in four sports. After high school, Sam answered a call to duty and joined the United States Marine Corps. He served with the Marines from 1943 to 1945, and during World War II found himself stationed in Saipan, Tinian, Okinawa, and Nagasaki.
In later years, Sam would tell his children and grandchildren stories from the war that would showcase his ability to find the best in terrible circumstances. His stories highlighted friendships, and moments of great humanity. He would tell the story of a duck “Siwash,” saved from the battle lines and tenderly carried from place to place throughout the war. He would share the difficulties inherent in playing basketball on an aircraft carrier, or the fear that he, the battle-worn marine harbored, knowing that he would have to face his mother with a new tattoo. He could bring people to tears recounting the moment when he was reunited, albeit briefly, with his brother Charles “Beaver” Leighton Jr., who was also serving in the Pacific.
It was not that Sam failed to see the harsher side of war, but rather that he chose to spend the remainder of his days focused on the hard-won accomplishments and the deeply forged friendships that marked his years in the Pacific. During his “retirement,” he tracked down many of the friends he served with, some of whom brought their family members to vacation on the Vineyard for reunions. His own family witnessed many of these reunions and watched with amazement as Sam joked and talked with these friends as though they had seen one another nearly every day, when in reality they hadn’t spoken in almost 50 years.
After World War II, Sam attended Boston University where he continued to exhibit his athletic prowess. He played both football and basketball at B.U. To this day, Sam holds the college basketball record for most points in a single game at the Boston Garden, and given that the Garden has been torn down, he always will. While at B.U. Sam met Nancy Brown, whom he married following her graduation from B.U. in 1952.
Together, Sam and Nancy returned to Edgartown and built a family. Over the course of his life Sam worked with the Edgartown Police Department, was director of the Boys & Girls Club, and spent years as a commercial fisherman. In each of those jobs, his connection and dedication to the community was evident. Whether he was assisting another citizen as a police officer, mentoring children at the club who all knew him as “Devil Dog,” or educating people about the natural resources of the Vineyard waters, Sam always exemplified what it meant to be a member of a community.
In addition to being a fiercely loyal friend, Sam was also a loving father and doting grandfather. “Gramp” would never miss a horseshow or a hockey game. He became a fixture at the M.V. Ice Arena, much to the delight of the high school team members and much to the dismay of the referees.
Sam brought his humor, dedication, compassion, and sense of duty to everything he did. For many children and friends the “devil dog” represented safety in a storm. He was loud and boisterous, athletic and strong, but he could always offer a quiet, gentle moment to anyone in need. He was not merely born into the Greatest Generation, but rather earned his place among it through his lifelong commitment to his family, his friends, and his community. He will be sorely missed.
Sam is survived by his two sisters, Stella “Peach” Dawley and Sally Frasier; his three daughters, Nancy Henry, Gail Palacios, Patty Mundt; six grandchildren, Rachel, Kelley, Ryan, Kraig, Nicole, and Erin; three great-grandchildren, Hiram, Isabella, and Damon; and many, many friends. He was fortunate to have lived surrounded by a community and place that he truly loved. Anyone who knew him would agree, the only appropriate parting words in his honor are these: Semper Fi.
Friends and family will host a gathering in celebration of Sam’s life on Saturday, Oct. 2, from 4 to 7 pm at the Martha’s Vineyard Boys and Girls Club. A eulogy and brief service will begin at 4:30 pm with military honors offered by the Veterans of Martha’s Vineyard.
Donations in Sam’s memory may be made to the Martha’s Vineyard Boys & Girls Club, P.O. Box 654, Edgartown, MA 02539 or the Martha’s Vineyard Ice Arena, P.O. Box 2062, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568. Arrangements are under the care of the Chapman, Cole & Gleason Funeral Home, Oak Bluffs.