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* * The mirthful world of Sam Riley


The word “satirist” is often the one you’ll hear most about Samuel Gayle Riley, III, who died last week at age 74. Sam, who spent much of his career – and he was still working when he died – teaching communications at Virginia Tech, would better be termed a “mirthist.” And if the word had not yet been created, whenever it would be, he’d be ready to use it. You see, “satire” is a word that carries emotional baggage, whereas Sam’s work was imbued with mirth, whimsy, and gladsomeness. I can’t imagine that when he pointed his prickly pen at people in the news, even they couldn’t help but have their funny-bone tickled.

Sam was a tall, distinguished white-haired man and first-rate scholar. He was from an erudite North Carolina Piedmont family with a lineage back to early 1600s Tidewater Virginia. Always impeccably attired, debonair but without ostentatiousness, he dressed for success and often wore wide bow-ties to his lectures, which were eagerly anticipated by his students or should have been had they had any good sense. He was a customer and friend of mine, and I saw him in what appeared to be good health not six weeks ago.

Sam and I often joked about how we competed for space on the editorial pages of the region’s newspapers. My goal has always been to take hot political topics and state what I hope are well-reasoned arguments. Sam’s were more about having fun. Here’s a sample:

Sam was, in his own words “inspired by sheer disgust” at the Rev. Pat Robertson’s remarks to the effect that the earthquake in Haiti back in 2010 was somehow punishment for the afflicted population’s transgressions. Shortly thereafter, when a small meteorite crashed through the roof of a physician’s office in Northern Virginia, Sam wrote, “I, the Rev. Sam, am here to explain to you, my many thousands of faithful followers, what actually happened here. It was…(pause for effect)…the wrath of the Almighty, raining down to punish out of- control medical costs! And how does the Rev. Sam know this? Simple, my brethren and sistren. The Lord told me he planned to do this recently when we were having one of our usual chats. He also said that he was thinking about sending a bigger, basketball-size meteorite to smack into a Blue Cross office to serve as a sort of cosmic exclamation mark.”

This was from a book he wrote called Mostly Merry Commentary, published by Pocahontas Press, which my wife Jane and I own and operate. The sub-title is worth the price of the book, From the Mezzanine of the Ivory Tower. Clearly, it never bothered Sam to even take nibbles, if not outright gulps, at the proverbial hand that fed him for so many decades, the world of the university what with “ivory tower” being a slang term for academic elitism.

          Words like “sistren” and “vapid,” “doggone,” “smarmy,” and “bumbling simps” flew off his hyperactive keyboard with enviable acuity. When his space-bar became figuratively stuck, as it seemed to do frequently, he gave us “inasmuch,” “farfetched,” “hereabouts,” “nosireebob,” and “notwithstanding.” He wrote similes like “The man was as lazy as a 15-year-old basset hound…” and “when you say it, it has a certain rhythm that sounds vaguely like a footlocker falling end over end down a flight of dormitory stairs.”

To the buoyant, mirthful Professor Riley, words were like Lego blocks to a child, toys to be cherished and used with a frolicsome joy. He was a master wordcrafter, and he had an entire language, English, tailor-made to be used for profit, entertainment, fun, and the betterment of the human condition.

His most recent book we published for him, Things My Southern Mother Used to Say, Yesteryear’s Expressions From Piedmont North Carolina, is filled with colloquial expressions and simple definitions of them. From his mother he learned to say, “get your dander up,” “bee in my bonnet” and “struttin’ around like a little banty rooster,” and many more that would likely befuddle any English as a second language student but were quite familiar to me, with no definitions necessary. Sam wrote more than 20 books.

As eager as he was to poignantly point his prickly pen at others, he relished in poking fun at himself. Concluding the Introduction to Mostly Merry Commentary, he wrote, “What really gives me pause is that serious-minded parents of some of my old journalism students might read this collection of mostly merry stories and ask another question: ‘For this I spent tens of thousands of dollars to send my kid to college?’”

I’ll miss you, Sam Riley! You were one of a kind.


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