Facebook Twitter

What it means to be an American: Son of immigrants serves as Utah judge for three decades

SHARE What it means to be an American: Son of immigrants serves as Utah judge for three decades

SALT LAKE CITY — Andrew Sirb, a man who wanted freedom so badly he walked hundreds of miles through Europe and endured two arrests, never got to see what one of his sons would become in his beloved America. The father was gone by the time David — just one generation removed from the old country — became a federal judge. He was gone when his son fielded a call from the president of the United States himself to offer the job. Who could’ve imagined such a thing when Sirb set out for America decades ago.

Sirb came to America, and America gave him freedom, a factory job, a home for 11 children, a small farm and, by accident, a new name. Somewhere in the immigration process — maybe his Romanian accent was to blame — his name was changed to Sam on the official paperwork. Sam — he liked the sound of that.

web_1710908.jpg

David Sam's parents and two of their children are pictured in 1917. | Courtesy of David Sam

“How fortunate we are not only to be citizens of the greatest nation, but to bear the name of Sam, like Uncle Sam,” he told his children frequently.

And so here is the son, the honorable Judge David Sam, the youngest of Andrew Sirb’s children and now an old man himself, at 82. He has been a U.S. district court judge 31 years, the last 17 on senior status. When asked why he chose law, he says: “My father loved freedom and the Constitution. That motivated me. He always talked about the law of protecting freedom.”

It’s an only-in-America story, the immigrant’s son rising to become a judge and chief judge on the district court. Maybe that’s why he has always been the everyman, right down to riding the UTA bus from Springville to the courthouse in Salt Lake City every morning for two decades, a big-shot judge sitting shoulder to shoulder with shopkeepers, tellers, secretaries and businessmen.

“He’s just a quiet, go-about-his-business guy,” says fellow judge Dee Benson, who has known Sam for three decades. “He’s not arrogant, and for a judge that’s pretty uncommon.”

web_1710901.jpg

U.S. District Judge David Sam walks through the federal courthouse in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 8, 2016. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Sam has presided over a number of highly visible cases. There was the frivolous case involving Dennis Rodman, the eccentric pro basketball player who was sued by a woman who claimed he pinched her on the “fanny” — Sam’s term — when Rodman ran up the aisle to retrieve a loose ball. There was the case of James S. Bottarini, who was accused of pushing his wife down a cliff off a Zion Park trail for the insurance payout. Sam also presided over the lawsuit brought by artist Arnold Friberg against a sculptor for sculpting — without his permission — his famous painting of Washington praying in the woods.

But what Sam will always be remembered for is the Olympic bribery case in which Dave Johnson and Tom Welch faced federal charges for giving gifts and cash to members of the International Olympic Committee to win the 2002 Olympic bid. They were made scapegoats by the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, the IOC and Mitt Romney for their willingness to do SLOC’s bidding and play a well-established, mandatory game of the price is right with the IOC.

Midway through the trial, Sam granted a motion for acquittal brought by defense attorneys and took an eloquent swipe at the prosecution while he was at it. Reading from a statement he had written in longhand at home late the previous night, the judge told the courtroom: “In all my 40 years experience with the criminal justice system … I have never seen a criminal case brought to trial that was so devoid of mens rea or criminal intent or evil purpose. … There is something very wrong when, on the one side of the scales of justice sits Salt Lake City and the entire state of Utah, welcome recipients of the efforts of Mr. Welch and Mr. Johnson and their co-workers, without any sanction from the IOC, while on the other side sits (Welch and Johnson), charged by the United States with 15 felony counts for their efforts in winning the bid. This, in light of the evidence presented, offends my sense of justice.”

Then, turning to Welch and Johnson, he said: “How I regret that you were deprived, because of the pending charges … of fully enjoying the fruits of your tireless efforts to bring the Olympics (to Utah). … I can only imagine the heartache, the disappointment, the sorrow that you and your loved ones suffered through this terrible ordeal.”

The trial displayed Sam’s mix of jurisprudence, empathy, common sense, kindness and patriotism, the hallmarks of Sam’s life and career. During his final statement, the judge invited counsel, media and jurors to come to his chambers “any time” so he could thank them and meet them.

“I can’t tell you how much I believe in our system and this very thing that’s happened today,” he told the court. “How grateful I am to be a United States district judge, to have the opportunity of presiding over such an important case, to see you, Mr. and Mrs. American, sitting in that jury box.”

That could have been Andrew Sirb speaking through his son.

web_1710904.jpg

U.S. District Judge David Sam | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

* * * * *

Andrew Sirb was born on Feb. 25, 1894, in Beliu, Romania, in the same year, the same month, the same day and on the same street as Flora Toma. They were childhood playmates, then teenage sweethearts and then husband and wife. They married in April 1913 and made plans to flee political oppression on the eve of World War I.

In February 1914, Andrew kissed Flora goodbye and set off for America by foot and train. His wife had been able to obtain a visa, but he had been denied. If he could make it to America, he would send for her. She sewed money into his boots and shirt collar, and he began walking across Europe. He was jailed for a couple of weeks for traveling without papers and then taken to the railroad station and ordered to return to Beliu, but he “accidentally” got on a train heading the other way and resumed his trip to America.

He walked much of the way across what was then called Austria-Hungary, some 750 miles, with the help of farmers along the way, but after crossing into Germany he was picked up by the army and delivered to a gruff, terse officer. He decided to tell the truth, and after hearing Andrew’s story the German officer’s demeanor softened and he hatched a plan to help the young man. They posed as father and son as the officer led Andrew through processing, got him a visa and passport, and put him on a ship bound for the U.S. He also enabled Andrew to wire Flora, telling her that he was en route to America, and so she began her journey there, slipping out of Europe just as the war began.

Arriving in Philadelphia, Andrew continued to travel west to Ohio, where he had been told immigrants could obtain work in the Carnegie steel mill, and for the next four decades that’s where he labored. Flora joined him in Indiana, and they settled on a 20-acre farm near Hobart, raising nine sons (one died in infancy) and two daughters.

Andrew was passionate about America and freedom and had no patience for anything that threatened those things, real or perceived. When his oldest sons tried to persuade him to join the labor union because it would lead to promotions and pay increases, Andrew argued against it passionately. He thought such a move would compromise his independence.

“To be non-union in a closed shop took some guts,” says Sam. “He had to stand up for what he believed.”

Life unfolded in America with its challenges. Flora died when David was 4 years old. One of her daughters, Sophie, went to work in the steel mill to help support the family. The other daughter, also named Flora, dropped out of her senior year of high school to raise her brothers. David doesn’t recall that she even dated until the kids were grown and gone. “Flora was kind of our mother,” says David. Flora would one day escort David to college in Utah and wind up staying, finding work at the veterans hospital. She eventually married but never had children of her own; she had already raised a family.

On their small farm, the Sams had an orchard and a large garden, beehives, a milk cow, a hog and chickens. They were industrious, athletic and resourceful. They nailed a bushel basket to the side of the barn with the bottom cut out to create a basketball hoop. They stuffed a feed sack with newspaper and wrapped it with bailing twine to fashion a ball. Joe one day would score 57 points in a high school basketball game, which stood as an Indiana state record for years, and both Joe and David were awarded basketball scholarships. The older half of the children became general contractors and steelworkers, and the younger half went to college and became a Navy officer, a judge, a Ph.D. and a dean at the University of Mississippi.

The course of David’s life was altered dramatically when his brother Dan, after reading a magazine story about BYU basketball players, suddenly decided that was where he wanted to go to school. He dropped out of Valparaiso, and took a bus to Provo. The first person he met was Dean Evans, a returned Mormon missionary from Idaho, thus beginning a lifelong friendship. After being asked repeatedly if he were LDS, Dan asked his new friend what it meant. When Evans explained Mormonism, Dan supposedly replied, “Now I know why I’ve come here.” He ran out of money after one semester and headed home, where he converted several members of his family, one of them being David.

David, who was student body president and star of the basketball team in high school, went to Valparaiso for a year and then officially joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and transferred to BYU. Three years later he began serving a church mission in Minnesota with financial support provided by Dan. At the mission home he met a tall, thin missionary from Pittsburgh named Orrin Hatch, who slept in the bunk next to him.

“I got homesick; I could hardly stand it,” recalls Sam. “He comforted me. We just bonded.”

They talked on the train all the way to Des Moines, Iowa, and then went their separate ways. They wouldn’t meet again for 20 years. Both were attorneys by then and Sam had called Hatch to enlist his help in defending a poor immigrant shopkeeper against the IRS. At their reunion, they embraced and Hatch exclaimed: “Elder Sam, boy am I glad to see you! I’ve never forgotten you after all these years.”

Both were destined for bigger things.

Sam graduated from BYU in 1957, earned a law degree at the University of Utah in 1960, and served a three-year stint in the Air Force in the judge advocate general corps. As he was wrapping up his Air Force career, a friend mentioned that Duchesne needed a lawyer and a city attorney and put in a good word for him. He was hired for $12.50 an hour. He and his wife, Betty, and two children drove from Southern California to Duchesne, the last 20 miles on a gravel road, arriving at dusk. The next morning he eyed his bleak surroundings and meager home and told Betty, “Honey, what have I gotten us into?” Betty, with tears in her eyes, squared her shoulders and said, “It will work out.”

He worked a decade in Duchesne and Roosevelt in private practice and as the Duchesne County attorney and a county commissioner before becoming a state judge in the 4th Judicial District. After 25 years of practicing law, he applied for a vacancy on the U.S. District Court in 1985. He was interviewed by the judicial nominating commission in Salt Lake City on Feb. 25, 1985 — his parents’ birthday — and later told his wife that he felt his parents’ presence. “How coincidental was it that it was my parents’ birthday?” he said. After being nominated for the position, he battled nerves and doubts when he faced the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington.

“I wondered how I would come across, coming from a modest background,” he says.

web_1710907.jpg

U.S. District Judge David Sam | Courtesy of David Sam

Secretaries, lawyers and clerks gathered in Sam’s office when the call from President Ronald Reagan came to formally offer the appointment. Sam accepted, of course, and then Reagan said something that the judge would never forget because it displayed such sensitivity in one of the leaders of the world: “Would you please express to your wife and children my love and appreciation for their support while you perform your duties as a U.S. district judge.”

“Where in all the world could something like this happen?” Sam says. “My father had nothing but the clothes on his back when he walked across Europe. And to have the president call me. I’m sure if my father were alive he would have been thrilled. I believe he was aware.”

* * * * *

Judge Sam might be a U.S. district judge but in some ways he comes off as Andy of Mayberry. His office is a gathering place for people from other offices in the building who stop by to chat and grab a few of the Dove chocolates he keeps in a bowl. He frequently invites jurors and newly naturalized citizens to his chambers to visit after court proceedings, and some have stayed in touch with him for years.

web_1710902.jpg

U.S. District Judge David Sam puts on his robe at the federal courthouse in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 8, 2016. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

For decades he kept a beehive, of all things, in his chambers on the fourth floor of the old courthouse until he was moved to the new federal courthouse two years ago. The wooden window was specially modified to allow the bees to fly in and out of a glass hive. Sam collected the honey and combined it with the harvest from his backyard hive.

“They created quite a buzz at the courthouse,” Sam says, smiling. And it’s true. Court officials came to his office just to see the hive, and he converted many of them into amateur beekeepers — U.S. marshals, probation officers, court officials, judges. “He’s like the Johnny Appleseed of beekeeping,” says David Jones, the judge’s longtime clerk.

Sam is an effusively generous, friendly and self-deprecating man who is prone to wax eloquently and tearfully about his wife, his parents, his country, his God. He keeps a Book of Mormon, a Bible and a picture of Christ in his office and works in the LDS temple in Bountiful once a week. He has a chronic case of civility and humility. Benson likes to say that Sam has the demeanor of a military chaplain.

In his mind, he’s still the lowly law school student who once removed cushions from the couch to see if he could find a dime to make a phone call, and worked at Penney’s and burger joints to pay his way through law school.

Sam’s kindness and simple goodness is a recurring theme when his name is mentioned to anyone who knows him. Years ago, Benson and another fellow judge, Paul Warner, were headed into a meeting with Sam when they bet a Diet Coke to see who could “out-nice” Sam. “I thought I could do it,” says Benson. “I started complimenting him and saying nice things about Judge Sam and next thing you know he’s coming around the desk and putting his arm around me and saying: ‘I sure love and appreciate this guy. If it weren’t for Dee, I wouldn’t be here …’ I’m trying to reciprocate, and then Paul joins in and gives it his best shot, and it was the same thing. Paul and I admitted defeat. Judge Sam is the nicest man in America. He’s so complimentary; he makes you feel like a million dollars, and it’s genuine.”

Sam is so pleasant that nobody wants to leave his side. Jones had a private law practice for five years before he came to clerk for Sam. “I planned to stay for a year because I thought it would be a good experience,” he says. That was 26 years ago. Another clerk, Mitzi Collins, has been there 26 years, as well. “He’s such a nice man to work for,” says Jones. “The question I am asked more than any other is, ‘Is Judge Sam really as nice as he seems?’ Yes.”

Doug Conrad, one of those regular office visitors, says: “The first time I met the judge he came out from behind his desk and shook my hand and talked to me and I thought, ‘Nobody’s that nice.’ I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. Well, that other shoe has never dropped. He’s a sweetheart. Everybody in the building will say the same thing.” Conrad is a court security officer.

As Benson puts it, “Everybody loves David Sam. There might be a few lawyers who haven’t fared well in his court that might have a disagreeable word about him, but I don’t know of any. He’s a prince of a guy.”

web_1710905.jpg

U.S. District Judge David Sam poses at the federal courthouse in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 8, 2016. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Perhaps the story that sheds the most light on the inner man was one that actually found its way into the press. In 2002, a man who was in jail awaiting sentencing on a federal drug charge, wrote a profanity-laced letter to his girlfriend. In the letter he boasted that his sentencing was bound to go well because “my father plays golf with Sam the crusty old judge who happens to be (my judge), not by choice! Ha! Not only that, but the old (bleep) lives up here in Heber somewhere and the church people who come every Sunday morning happen to know him, so it all looks good for me. Ha! Ha … I have to write a suck-up letter to the Honorable (bleep), and it should be great for me.” The jailed man wrote the “suck-up” letter and mailed it to Sam, or so he thought. When his girlfriend visited the man at the jail, she asked him, “Why did you send me a copy of the letter you sent to the judge?” The inmate had accidentally sent the letter intended for his girlfriend to the judge. Sam the crusty old judge had it in his hands when the man appeared before him.

The judge told the inmate that his profanity reflected a lack of refinement and a negative attitude to society and that he could do better than that. Sam sentenced him to 70 months in prison — the minimum sentence allowed by law. (The judge also noted later, “I’ve thought and thought, and I can’t ever remember playing golf with that kid’s dad.”)

During one of his first days on the job, Jones wrote a memorandum in which he referred to the defendant by his last name only. “Judge Sam gently corrected my draft, adding the title “Mr.” to each last name and reminded me that we needed to show respect to all parties,” says Jones. “That was one of the many occasions early on when I realized the caliber of the man and judge I was privileged to work for.”

Such respect and civility are the judge’s modus operandi. He treated his late wife Betty like a queen, and they went everywhere together. When the judge traveled to legal conferences around the country, she went with him. When they drove anywhere, she always scooted to the middle seat so she could sit next to him (this was before bucket seats). They would drive side by side while passing motorists honked and waved. “They were right out of a Norman Rockwell painting,” says Benson. “She’d sit next to him in the front seat of the Buick and they’d drive to Kansas and Colorado.” The judge still chokes up with any mention of Betty. She bore six children and they adopted two more. A friend came to them asking them to adopt a girl who had been abandoned by her own parents. It turned out she had a sister, so they adopted her, too.

“We talked it over as a family,” says Sam. “She needed a home. We had a good life.”

The judge planned to take a leave of absence in 1999 after stepping down as chief judge. He and Betty wanted to serve an LDS mission and they were thrilled when Sam was called to serve in his ancestral homeland as president of the Bucharest-Romania Mission. But then Betty, who passed her initial physical examination, saw a specialist about a baffling inability to open her left hand. After a battery of tests, she was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease. Sam wrote a letter to Elder James E. Faust, then a member of the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, explaining the turn of events and declining the mission. He tried to read it to his fellow judges, but he was too emotional to speak, and Judge Bruce Jenkins read it for him. His fellow judges rallied behind him. They offered to cover his caseload for him, and a temporary judge’s chambers was set up in his home in Springville. Betty declined rapidly and died Aug. 27, 2000, just 18 months after the diagnosis.

“He just worshipped (Betty),” says Benson.

Sam was devastated. He prayed that death would come for him too, so he could be reunited with his wife, but President Faust gently chastised him and promised him he had a lot of living still to do and that happiness would return to his life. Five years later it happened; a woman named Bennie Rolfe, whom he had met 45 years earlier while working in the Uinta Basin, came to him with a legal problem and they began to date.

During a January blizzard in 2005, they decided over breakfast in a Salt Lake restaurant to marry that very day. Sam called Benson to ask him to perform the marriage, but Benson was in Washington, D.C. Benson said he’d perform the procedure over the phone after he got done with meetings that evening. “Is that legal?” Sam asked Benson, who replied, “If two federal judges say it’s legal, it’s legal.” He married them that evening over the phone.

web_1710903.jpg

U.S. District Judge David Sam speaks with his wife, Bennie Lynn, at the federal courthouse in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 8, 2016. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

* * * * *

Judge Sam returned to Romania in 1991, the first of his family to visit the ancestral home, nearly eight decades after his father began walking to America. Sam, accompanied by Betty, was in Romania to attend a conference dedicated to helping Romania transition from communism to democracy, something that would’ve thrilled his father. A Romanian official who spoke English agreed to drive him 150 miles to Beliu after Sam explained his father’s history.

The mayor of Beliu recognized the Sirb name and photo immediately and pointed them in the right direction. Minutes later Sam and Betty were standing in front of the home that belonged to his first cousin, but he was out in the fields at the time. Someone was dispatched to find him, but meanwhile word spread that an American had come home. A crowd gathered around Sam, the women with their babushkas over their heads, the men in their hats, all of them with their hands placed as if in prayer, “as if a miracle had happened,” says Sam.

A next-door neighbor presented himself to the judge. He retrieved a shoebox from his house and withdrew a photo that Sam immediately recognized — a picture of his mother and brother standing by the family cow in Indiana. How did he get that, the judge asked? The neighbor explained that their fathers had been boyhood friends and that Andrew Sirb had sent the photo to his father in 1929. Sam had the same photo himself, and Andrew had written the same message on the back of both photos in Romanian and English — “This is my sweetheart with my oldest boy John and the pet cow, which we use to keep the lawn mowed in front of my home in Hobart and give us milk.”

web_1710911.jpg

A photograph showing Judge David Sam's mother and his brother John and the family's pet cow in 1929 in Hobart, Indiana. | Courtesy of David Sam

Sam asked the people to point out the location of his mother’s home. He was led across the street and down a trail to a plot of land off the road. The house was no longer there. All that remained was an old apple tree, and they picked the fruit and ate it. They returned to the street just as Sam’s cousin arrived on a small horse-drawn wagon. There were bear hugs and tears and wailing at the reunion. Sam was so overcome with emotion that he could barely stand. When he was able to speak, he asked about his father’s childhood home. His cousin pointed to his own home, which, it turned out, was built on the foundation of his father’s home. Sam was invited to eat a meal, and as they continued to talk they ate fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, bread and stew.

“They were so grateful to see someone return from America, all of them,” says Sam.

web_1710909.jpg

Judge David Sam makes a visit to his ancestral home in Romania in 1991 with his wife Betty. | Courtesy of David Sam

Sam had brought his parents’ story full circle. He has carried a photo of them in his wallet since he left home for college. The same photos are displayed in his office, as well as two large, authentic Uncle Sam posters from the two world wars that were gifts from the security staff.

web_1710906.jpg

Judge David Sam keeps a photograph of his father and his friends from Romania in his wallet. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Sam likes to tell his family’s story when he conducts naturalization hearings. He discusses what it means to be an American, and often the new citizens respond with stories of their own. Hearing the story of Sam’s father, an FBI agent and an immigration official did some genealogical work for the judge and presented him with photos of the ships that brought his father and mother to America.

Looking back, Sam thinks again of his father for a moment before saying: “How will I ever repay him for what he did? How impossible it was — what he did and what happened. We came from nothing, a peasant village, and what a blessing to be here in this great land and experience the things that we’ve been blessed to experience.”

web_1710910.jpg

U.S. District Judge David Sam poses for a photograph at the federal courthouse in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 8, 2016. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Email: drob@deseretnews.com