Father creates legacy for son

Samuel Allen Pampel Foundation 

By Cody Douds

In 2016, Tony and Maude Pampel received news that changed the family’s life. At school, their 3-year-old son’s teacher noticed a lump near his right ear and contacted Maude. Following the teacher’s report, the family consulted several physicians, one of which included a family friend, and tried to remain calm. Yet, they were unaware of the chemo, hours of surgery, and extended hospital stays that would dictate the next four years.

Samuel Allen Pampel heroically fought neuroblastoma for four years, making optimistic recoveries along the way. Throughout those years, Sam was “hard to slow down.” It was common for Tony to explain his son’s periodic progress to bewildered nurses with the pithy saying, “That’s just Sam.” In the course of Sam’s struggle, he was officially in remission for 18 months, although he still received treatment.

Tony and Maude Pampel with their children, Ben, Sam and Emmie.
Photos courtesy of Tony Pampel

Around Christmas 2019, Sam contracted bacterial meningitis due to an infected port in his head necessary for dispensing medicine to treat the cancer. Subsequent medical results revealed that the cancer had returned. Due to his previous surgeries and chemo treatments, a team of doctors determined the cancer was inoperable and terminal. On Jan. 23, 2020, Sam died.

Eight months after losing his son, Tony began a social media campaign, “Walking with Sam,” in a successful effort to raise money for Alex’s Lemonade Stand during pediatric cancer awareness month. The Stand benefits the pediatric cancer community by providing funds for research and grants. Tony began with a fundraising goal of $1,000, but that goal was soon eclipsed by generous donors.

In 2020, endeavoring to share his son’s legacy, Tony equipped himself with a GoPro, selfie stick and a community of champions as he committed to walk 3/4 of a mile each day. The distance represented the distance between the Ronald McDonald House and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Tony and Sam commuted on foot between those locations when the family sought specialized treatment outside Texas. “Walking with Sam,” became 20-minute walks that were live streamed for Facebook viewers.

More than 2,700 people viewed, shared and reacted to the first day of “Walking with Sam.” By September 3, the number exceeded 3,000. The grieving father spoke vulnerably about what he called “the reality of childhood cancer.” Tony said, “During pediatric cancer awareness month, all we see is cute little bald kids.” As a devastated father, however, these happy, smiley kids symbolized the dissonance between real cancer patients and marketing rhetoric.

The third annual Super Sam’s 5k and Dino Dash takes place on Saturday, Nov. 4 at Bachman Lake Park.

During Tony’s walk in September, he shared what a typical night was like in the pediatric cancer unit. There was little rest. Sam was connected to various monitors and tubes, which were easily tangled or pinched in his sleep. Either Tony assisted his son, or a nurse was alerted, who then entered the room and likely interrupted their rest no matter how inconspicuously he or she worked. Sometimes his son woke up screaming in pain or vomiting. On the disharmony between Sam’s real life and smiling children on a cardboard box, Tony confessed, “I was angry.” His grief moved him to take a strident approach to fundraising, a strategy he has since recanted. 

By the end of September, thanks to views, shares and donations, the Pampel family raised more than $16,000 for Alex’s Lemonade Stand, but Tony was not finished. There were more organizations he wanted to support, such as Candle Lighters NYC, Camp iHope and the North Texas Grief and Loss Center. These organizations and others like it had a positive impact on their family, and he wanted it to continue for more families. To streamline their influence, the Pampel family created the Samuel Allen Pampel Foundation “to support children with pediatric cancer and their families through funding organizations that not only foster these families but also advance treatment, research and grants.”

These days Tony often reflects on what motivates people to support and donate to causes. In a hyperconnected digital world, it is ostensibly easy to promote any cause. However, Tony found that a potential donor, perhaps three or four social connections removed from a cancer patient, is unlikely to support “weaponized anger.” Tony said, “Angry people attract other angry people.” He learned this wisdom through “Walking with Sam,” another indelible legacy left by his son.

The Samuel Allen Pampel Foundation seeks to put on fun events that support families. The third annual Super Sam’s 5k and Dino Dash (Sam was a lover of dinosaurs) takes place on Saturday, Nov. 4 at Bachman Lake Park. (2750 Bachman Drive in Dallas). There will be a run, live music, a bounce house and food for purchase. 

To register, visit samuelallenpampel.org.