He was born on May 21, 1927 in Wilkes County, North Carolina…little town of Ronda. At thirteen, he came north to Harford County to work for the summer and ‘fell in love with Maryland.’ He went back home to Ronda to be with his four brothers and five sisters and decided he wanted to come back to Harford. So when he was fifteen he came up for good. “I was the only one who got out,” he says with a smile, sitting in his kitchen this fine morning.
He was impressed as a young man with a motorcycle cop who was courting a school teacher in Ronda. He also gave thought to being a lawyer. Matter of fact there was a pretty good lawyer up this way when Sam Tharpe became a Maryland State Trooper after a stint in the United States Navy several years later.
“There was a fella who had a bunch of charges, speeding, reckless driving and a couple others. As was the case folks would ask this particular lawyer for help in magistrate’s court, which was held in local volunteer fire houses back in the sixties.” Tharpe relates to me.
The lawyer looked over the fella’s summons and asked him who the arresting officer was.
“Well, sir, the trooper was Sam Tharpe.” he said.
“O.K. Son, you go over to the clerk and pay the minimum fine, because if Sam Tharpe gave you a ticket you likely deserved it.” The lawyer was my dad, Gwynne Holden, and he held Trooper Tharpe in high regard.
Having breakfast recently, Sam Tharpe digs in to his bowl of sausage gravy and biscuits. Mac Lloyd, who has joined us, remembers Sam, because one night as Mac was driving home from basketball practice at North Harford High School in his ’65 maroon Mustang, he noticed he was being followed closely by a car, so he pulled onto the shoulder, and the other car did the same. He pulled back onto the road and sped up…so did the car behind, then on came the red light and siren.
“The trooper came up and asked me why I was slowing down, pulling over, pulling back on the road and speeding up,” Mac recalls. I told him “because your high beams were blinding me.” The trooper looked at Mac and said, “I apologize for that, you go ahead on your way.”
Sam Tharpe celebrated his 83rd birthday this year and has gone full circle from the farming days of his youth, to the garden he tends now in his retirement. His first car was a 1929 Ford that he paid $37.50 for. When he left farming to join the Navy he said ‘I felt like I was on vacation.’
His mentor when he graduated from the State Police Academy in 1956 was Bernie Haywood, who was featured in a story in The Star earlier this year. He worked with Trooper Haywood for two months and then, he says, ‘I was on my own. It really felt good when I was assigned to work alone. An early evaluation stated I gave too many warnings, compared to summonses.”
Troopers at the time worked sixteen hour days and more when the need arose and slept at the Conowingo barrack.
“I never hit anyone in my life, and I’ve been in some tussles, especially putting hand-cuffs on folks. Our barrack commander at Conowingo was new, and would ask us when we came in if we were ‘sleepy’ and if we weren’t, he asked us to play a few hands of pinochle. This was in the middle of the day and I thought that was odd…but if we weren’t tired out and didn’t have to go back out on the road, he wanted us to play cards with him.
“Later it dawned on me this was his way of getting to know his men… by playing cards with them he found out more about them. Sort of what made us tick.”
In 1963, Senator Daniel Brewster presented Sam Tharpe with the Alumni Association Trooper of The Year award. In 1965, he was promoted to Corporal and transferred to the John F. Kennedy post.
As we talk later at Sam’s home, a little sign hanging near the kitchen table catches my eye… “All of Our Hopes and Dreams are within reach…If Only We Believe.” This is the home Sam bought in 1966. In 1956, right after graduating from the Academy, he married Mary Louise Wilson. They were married 43 years when she passed away.
A second marriage lasted only four years and ended in divorce.
Sam Tharpe is the kind of guy you’d never guess was a lawman. Even after retiring from the State Police in June of 1978, he went on to be Security Supervisor at Peach Bottom Atomic Plant, near Delta, a post he held for eleven years.
Today, he tends the garden, goes to church every Sunday and has dinner with his nephew, Jeffrey Wilson and a couple grand-nephews every Friday night. He’s in great shape for his age and shows no sign of slowing down or forgetfulness or aging…with a head full of hair and a heart full of respect for others.
He was the trooper who wanted to ask a teenage altar boy in Cecil County, accused of arson in a church, to take a polygraph test, not to convict, but rather to exonerate and prove the boy didn’t set the fire. He was soundly criticized for asking for the polygraph even though he felt the lad had not committed any crime. Turns out the case was never prosecuted.
On another occasion he and Cpl. Haywood picked up a man in Cecil County for a license violation, and drove him and his car back to Darlington, safe and sound delivered to his home…no charges were filed, but a stern warning to the man, not to switch tags on his car and be sure his license was valid.
“Did you ever arrest Sam Spicer?” I ask…since a lot of our generation in the area know Mr. Spicer and knew he had fast cars…and also worked sun-up to sun-down on a dairy farm, much like Tharpe did as a kid.
“No…never had to,” was Sam Tharpe’s reply. The old adage, ‘mercy seasons justice’ seemed to apply to our conversation concerning law-breakers and law-enforcers.
QUIRKY LAW BREAKERS
“We had certain kinds of thieves, like the man who I arrested who only stole gasoline on Thursday nights, from all the farmers in the area. I finally caught him. He would pump the gas into a ten-gallon milk can in the back seat of his car. He was stealing gasoline from farms in Harford and Cecil Counties,” Sam notes.
Another thief always cut neat little squares to break into homes and steal coins and cash. Another criminal would make neat stacks of the glass that he broke out of windows to gain access to a home he burglarized.
“These little quirks all added up to arrests…, they were like ‘calling cards’ of the criminals,” Sam points out.
Methodical, friendly to a fault, in the twilight of his years and close to the earth and land he loves, Sam Tharpe is a good man, who served the people of our community in the best way possible.
He told me the reason he didn’t take a promotion to work CID (Criminal Investigation Division) was because he only knew one way to be…straight and honest, and in his words, “to work CID you had to operate on two levels to be successful, and that just wasn’t what I could do… you almost have to be a criminal to arrest a criminal.”
The one way, the right way, seemed to work out just fine for the boy from Wilkes County who came to Harford and fell in love with the people and the work. And lots of folks he dealt with hold him to this day in the highest regard.