My Night at Sam’s

Craig Claudin

I had the pleasure, along with my wife Margaret, of knowing Sam Hsu for twenty-three years. I was their “chauffeur” to Danbury, Connecticut, where from 1989 to 1991, Margaret studied flute with the world-renowned former first chair flute of The New York Philharmonic, Julius Baker.

Sam was Margaret’s accompanist, and in addition to our four-hour-one-way road trips to Mr. Baker’s country home, we travelled to Muncy, PA for Csehy Summer School of Music and to numerous church and college concerts in the tri-state area. There were also frequent overlaps at Tenth Presbyterian Church and Philadelphia Biblical University where, respectively, Sam and Margaret worshiped and taught.

In October, 2011, just weeks before Sam’s death, I was planning a train trip to upstate New York for a reunion with a life-long friend. I reserved a seat on a 5:50 AM Amtrak from Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station but there were no local trains to connect me to Amtrak that early in the morning. The night before my departure, I had an evening class at Moore College of Art and Design that would end at 10:00 PM. So, to save myself some physical wear and tear, I tried to think of a friend in the city with whom I could stay the night.

Given his proximity to my school and 30th Street Station, Sam was the logical choice. But knowing his gift of hospitality and the energy and time he would undoubtedly expend for me, I was hesitant to ask him. Still, the idea persisted, so I sent him an e-mail.

Here was Sam’s reply and our exchange that followed:
As promised, Sam was waiting for me on his apartment steps, still wearing a clean white shirt and dress slacks from his day at the university. I was pretty near his building before he recognized me, his eyesight growing worse every year. He waved at me, we exchanged warm greetings and headed up to his second floor studio digs. I had been there years before to pick him up for summer music camp but I’d forgotten how small his place was.

The first room was his kitchen that doubled as a study-away-from-school. It held a floor-to-ceiling bookcase packed with books and memorabilia. Most of the books were about theology and music, of course, but a number of other subjects were represented, including world history, social science and math.

Across from the bookcase and the door to his bedroom stood the fridge – small and plastered with photos of friends, missionaries, various promotional and art-bearing magnets, and quotations by Christian writers scribed in Sam’s own hand.

Next to the fridge was a tiny sink and small gas stove, with metal cabinets above. A lone iron frying pan hung on the wall and next to it was a beautifully painted Chinese calligraphy from Tsimshatsui Swatow Christian Church, China, where Sam performed. Its English translation: “Good performance brings glory to God; Beautiful music brings a blessing to the people."

Beneath this was a metal cart with a microwave, steam iron, electric kettle, several stacks of books, and a (non-flat-screen) TV. A rear window offered a view to a small parking area outside. Rounding out the kitchen was a table covered with personal papers, books, and vitamin supplements.

Sam’s apartment was clearly not a place he spent any more time in than to sleep and bathe. He kept precious little food there and his fridge was practically empty. Eating out with friends was his usual modi operandi - including Pete's Famous Pizza, a Greek-owned diner just two doors down the street which he'd frequented for more than 35 years.

Sam offered me gourmet brands of wine, cheese and crackers he'd selected just for my visit and that I tried to balance while sitting on the piano bench next to his bookcase. The Phillies were in the play-offs and we watched some of the game. Sam loved the Phillies. He enjoyed a lot of things you might not expect a man of his talent and intellect to enjoy. But that’s what made him “all things to all people.” Margaret, an avid knitter, used to collect the large photo books by knitting artist, Kaeffe Fasset. We were surprised once that Sam went to hear him lecture at the Free Library of Philadelphia. But that was Sam; few subjects did not interest him. And if it helped to build a friendship, Sam would discover what it was you enjoyed and then he’d do his homework.

We stayed up about an hour and called it a night. We were both pretty tired so our conversation didn't really go all that deep. Sam showed me my room: his bedroom - sparse with little concern for decoration. An Asian art print and 3-D treble clef populated the wall beside his bed. He had two dressers and a blonde upright piano. Hanging beside his bed was a red, clear, and blue beaded curtain, a remnant of the 60’s or 70’s. I’m sure most everything in his place had a story behind it and if you’d given Sam anything, he probably still had it.

I slept well enough – listening to the buses, cars and cycles go by on 21st Street – before falling asleep. 4:15 A.M. came quickly and after my shower I found Sam sitting in the kitchen in a black robe, wearing his thick “Coke bottle” glasses, sipping tea, wishing me a good morning and asking how I slept. True to his word, he served me Grape Nuts, juice and tea. We chatted a bit and then I had to go. He gave me some snacks for my trip and after a brief prayer, sent me off with his typical big smile.

I only took two photos that night – Sam standing in his kitchen and a hymn verse from Lord, with Glowing Heart I’d Praise Thee, tacked to his front door. Some weeks after Sam died, Ephraim Schäfli, Sam’s student and personal “Elisha,” was struck by one detail in the photo I took of Sam. On the TV beside him was a Hershey’s chocolate commercial, featuring a close-up of one of their classic milk chocolate bars molded with the Hershey logo. The Swiss-born Ephraim quipped, “Dr. Hsu would often lecture me about the superior taste of Hershey’s over any other chocolate!”

What a loving and personal reminder this was for Ephraim (received post-mortem from his beloved teacher and friend!). And how kind of God it was to appoint the Hershey commercial at the second I snapped the shot. There is no question that He has his eye on every detail of our lives - just like the Sparrows of which Jesus spoke.

Of all the quotes stuck to Sam’s fridge, my favorite is by Abraham Kuyper which Sam transcribed on a 3X5 card. It speaks of God's sovereignty and Sam's contentment in that truth.

There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry, "Mine!" - Abraham Kuyper
Above, Pete's Famous Pizza, a Greek-owned diner next to Sam's apartment - a frequent stop for Sam. The owner, speaking with her Greek accent, was quite saddened by Sam's death. She said to me, "In 35 years I know him, he never say a bad word." I gave her a poster with his picture and the verse from the hymn on Sam's door, which they have since framed and hung on the wall.

Seated above: Ephraim, Kristin and newborn Elliott Schäfli having lunch at the diner with Margaret and me. Joining us later were Robin and Steve Vallette, long-time friends of Sam who came to town to help Ephraim and Kristin pack up Sam's belongings for brothers Tim and Andrew.
Sam's Chinese name means
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Sam's Apartment on 21st Street

Sam's Apartment on 21st Street

Front dooe of Sam's apartment

his mailbox

Apartment stairs

book shelves

book shelves

Chinese horse

Pencils in tin can

Books CS Lewis

Old Spice Mug

Books Bonhoeffer

Kitchen sink

Frying pan on kitchen wall

Chinese calligraphy from church were Sam performed

View out rear kitchen window

Henry Ossawa Tanner print boy with banjo

Sam's name tag from Csehy

Beaded curtan and clothes dresser

Treble clef and Chinese art on bedroom wall

Hymn verse tacked to door

Pete's Famous Pizza Restaurant on corner

The crew at Pete's

Ephraim, Kristin and Elliot Schaffli at Pete's

Robin and Steve Vallette at Pete's