PEMBROKE — Mention the Parks and Recreation Department in Robeson County and the name Van Sampson immediately comes to mind.
Sampson, who died Saturday at the age of 60, worked for the department for about 35 years as a program specialist until he retired in May 2011 because of health reasons. Along with former Parks and Recreation Director Rudy Paul, he is credited with developing the department that today provides a variety of sports activities for both the county’s young people and adults.
“I learned a lot from him about how to run a parks and recreation department,” said Wendy Chavis, the current director of the department who worked with Sampson for 15 years. “When you think recreation in Robeson County, you immediately think Sampson.
“He had a great impact on kids over the years. The kids loved him,” Chavis said. “He was an enjoyable person to work with. He was funny. He had a great personality.”
Ricky McKinnon, the current assistant director of the Parks and Recreation Department, called Sampson his mentor.
“I knew him since 1981 when I was a senior at Rowland High School,” he said. “I worked with him full-time since 2006 and he showed me how to operate youth programs throughout the county … . He was just a wonderful person and loved his job. He touched the lives of so many of the county’s young people, many of whom went off to excel in sports at high schools and colleges.”
Sampson also officiated middle and high school sports — including football, basketball, baseball and softball — for 35 years. Even after retiring, he continued serving as an official at sporting events. He most recenlty was officiating at middle school baseball games, and at the time of his death had four more games left in the season to officiate.
Leon Maynor, a Lumberton city councilman who worked as an official at sporting events with Sampson, said that Sampson loved kids and would do anything to help them lead productive lives.
“He would help if they needed rides to games or talk to their parents if necessary to get them involved in athletic programs,”Maynor said. “Grown kids today still say how much they learned from Van and Rudy.
“He was really well thought of. He had a lot of patience,” Maynor said. “I don’t think I ever saw him angry.”
Maynor, who is in charge of the pallbearers at Sampson’s funeral,, said they will all be wearing the black and white shirts worn when officiating basketball games. He also said that the family has requested that others attending the funeral wear any sporting uniform they wish in recognition of Sampson’s years as a high school and middle school game official.
“Maybe the Lord needed a referee in Heaven,” Maynor said. “He (Sampson) is there now.”
The funeral is being held at 1 p.m. today at Mount Airy Baptist Church in Pembroke. Burial will follow in the Oxendine Cemetery in Lumberton.
Sampson is survived by two daughters, Ursula Selles of Pembroke and Selena Cook of Lumberton; three sisters, Hazel Locklear and Rachel Sampson, both of Pembroke, and Connie Herr of Vass; and five grandchildren.