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by Mark Cheffey
It’s safe to say, Palmyra residents have conflicting opinions about one who recently deceased, Sam Sides, but it’s also worth noting that more, if not all, have no idea what he was like before becoming the homeless person wandering the streets most of us are familiar with.
Before his death at the age of 70 Oct. 7 at Levering Healthcare Center in Hannibal, Sides was beloved brother and cousin, the father of two children and a born again Christian, according to his sister, Connie Clatt, herself a former Palmyra resident.
Unfortunately, Sam had his demons, particularly issues with alcohol and drugs from a young age, that prevented him from rising above his problems.
“When Sam was Sam, he was a great guy,” Clatt said.
Sam was 10 years old, living in Secor, Ill, in the north, central part of the state when his whole world was turned upside down.
Sam and Connie’s father had returned from the Army in 1962, having been stationed in Germany, and the family was buying the house they were living in.
“Our dad was our hero, and life was going to be wonderful,” Clatt said. “We were excited. Everything was looking so good.”
And, then tragedy struck when their father was killed when struck by a train just a block away from where they lived.
“If our mother had been looking out the window, she would have seen it,” Clatt said.
His death was devastating for the family, that would soon include a brother, Tommy, who was born just five months with cerebral palsy.
A single mother with three children to take care of including one with special needs, set the family back.
The family ended up destitute and dependent on relatives with the mother never getting her driver’s license because her fear of driving was so strong.
Clatt remembers when they were living in the country near East Peoria for a time and not having any means of transportation.
“We walked everywhere we went,” Clatt said, remembering when she and Sam would walk once a week to do laundry two miles away, pushing their little brother in a wheel chair while pulling two cards full of clothes.
“It was rough. We didn’t have any money,” Clatt said.
Despite the difficulties, Clatt also remembers good times with lots of cousins to play with, noting Sam was an active boy at the time. Sometimes a little too active, breaking his nose on a fall from a bunk bed.
“It’s been broken at least three times,” Clatt said. “He had trouble breathing.”
One cousin said he owes Sam his life.
Sam was helping his cousin, Ryan Sides’, father on their farm when Ryan, who was only three or four at the time, decided to walk out into a lot where there was a bull, and got stuck in the mud.
“I was a sitting duck,” Ryan said. “Sam saw this, sprinted a good 100 yards down the lane and jumped the fence to pull me out of my boots.
“I probably wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Sam. I didn’t get to see him as often as I’d like later in life, but I was sure to thank him and tell him how grateful for him every time I saw him.”
Unfortunately for Sam, substance abuse came to be his weakness and prevented him from ever realizing any kind of happy and successful life.
He found work, as a maintenance man at a college and a cook at a Dairy Queen, where he met his future wife.
But his alcoholism prevented him from keeping a driver’s license and steady work. And, his demons led to him losing his wife and children, who he was prevented from ever contacting.
Clatt believes the loss of his father and his family resulted in psychological issues that included his fear of crowds and being inside and also his desire to avoid having to become responsible for anything and anybody.
“He didn’t like rules, and he preferred to be outside,” Clatt said. “He said, ‘I don’t want any responsibilities. I don’t want to be asked to take care of anybody else and just take care of myself.’”
Over the years, Clatt said, Sam moved from place to place as people tried to help him including an uncle in California. But he didn’t stick around very long and ended up hitchhiking back to Illinois.
Clatt said efforts were made to address his substance abuse, and he showed some progress at times.
Sam was working at a Dairy Queen in Washington, Ill., where Clatt visited him.
“And, in the driveway of that Dairy Queen that day, I led him to the Lord, and he became a Christian,” Clatt said.
Although, Sam was never able to control his substance abuse, Clatt noticed a change that stuck with him.
“He tried not to drink and he tried to behave himself, and he did for a while,” Clatt said. “I did see a change because his attitude changed toward other people. He wasn’t angry any more.”
Clatt said she and her husband continued to try to help him over the years, but were unable to take him into their home while they served as foster parents for many years.
He also became resistant to any help.
“He would say, ‘I’m a big boy. I can take care of myself,’” Clatt said.
Eventually, Palmyra became his home, but he was always seen wandering the streets and living outside without shelter even during the cold winter.
Near the end of his life, he suffered injury to both of his feet, and because of his resistance to help over several weeks, ended up having six toes removed.
Still, he continued to come back to Palmyra, staying at Maple Lawn Nursing Home for a short time before leaving and becoming homeless again, not wanting to live by anybody else’s rules.
The end came after a mass was found on his lungs.
Clatt said he always came back to Palmyra, because he wanted to be with friends.
“Sam loved it here,” Clatt said. “He said, ‘I like the people, and they like me.’”
Clatt said she was touched by the number of people who said kind things about Sam during a memorial service in Palmyra.
“And that meant a lot to me,” she said.
Despite Sam’s problems, Clatt said there was much about Sam that was good.
“He had a rough life, but he had a lot of positive things happen, too,” she said. “And, in the end, he was who he wanted to be.”
One of Sam’s only possessions was a Bible in which he wrote:
Dear Lord Jesus,
I am a Sinner, which means I deserve to go to hell, but right now, the best I know how, I am placing my total dependence on you alone to save me from Hell. I believe that you died and rose again. I am depending on you alone to take me to heaven.