Trooper Terry is live and in color in a meeting room at television station WJBF. In his size-7' cowboy hat, black denim shirt and brown leather suspenders, Trooper Terry, a.k.a. Terry Sams, looks as though he could play the heavy in an old-time Western.
But that's not his schtick.
Mr. Sams, the star of the Trooper Terry Show, which aired on WJBF for 20 years, is more likely to give a kid a lollipop than stick a pistol between your ribs.
The Trooper Terry Show was broadcast weekday afternoons and Saturday mornings from 1961 to 1981. The shows - except Saturday morning's - were all taped live. No tapes of the show exist.
Normally, the children in the audience were attending a birthday party that had been booked a year in advance.
"I would go on with them," Mr. Sams says. "I'd say, `Hey, kids, you better come runnin', you're just in time for Trooper Terry time, live and in color. Now, here's Trooper Terry.' Then they'd go through all of the names of the kids on the show."
The children were taught to tie their shoes, brush their teeth and be kind to others. They were also treated to presents and food and competed in bubble-blowing, drawing and Tarzan-yelling contests.
"And we even had a Gilligan's Island contest one time," Mr. Sams says. "You should have seen the pile of stuff that came into the studio."
The children watched cartoons on the Magic Viewing Screen Machine. The animated shorts included Jot, a religious program, Gumby and something called Rat Patrol.
"Those were OK," Mr. Sams says, "but the greatest and most well-received package was Tom and Jerry. Children and adults both loved it. The ratings were great. How are you going to beat Tom and Jerry?"
Off to the North Pole
Vyvyan Lynn, of Kite, Ga., has vivid memories of Trooper Terry's Christmas shows.
"I remember my sister and I jumping off the last step of the school bus and running down the lane to our house. We exploded through our front door with books, scarves and mittens flying in all directions. One of us turned on the TV as the other checked to make sure the antenna was pointed in the right direction to pick up station WJBF out of Augusta."
Mr. Sams used the Magic Screen to take his viewers to the North Pole.
"It was the old laying-a-finger-beside-your-nose-and-giving-a-nod trick - and to the North Pole you go," Mr. Sams said. "The wind would blow, and the cameras would go crazy and out-of-focus. Then I'd come rolling in front of Santa at the North Pole."
Santa would read letters from his viewers for about an hour. Mr. Sams says there was so much mail the station could barely handle a quarter of it.
"But we assured the rest of them that Santa had read their letters," he says.
Trooper to the rescue
Perhaps no three children were ever happier to see Trooper Terry than the trio who came from their Belvedere home for an impromptu hunting expedition one afternoon in 1965. The children, who ranged in age from 3 to 5 years old, never came home, and by nightfall authorities were scouring the woods behind their house.
"I went home that night, and I was listening to the radio with a pair of headphones when I heard they were still missing. So I got up and joined the search party. I went back over areas about 1,000 yards behind their home that had already been combed, calling their names.
"I had a big flashlight that I was waving around, calling their names: `Hey, this is Trooper Terry. Where are you guys?' It was about 30 degrees, and these kids were just in shirtsleeves because it had been in the 70s when they went out. Then, this little head popped out of the leaves about 30 yards away. `Hey Trooper! Come take us home."'
Mr. Sams, who retired in 1992, got his start in television at age 16, when he landed a gig as a part-time announcer on WBEJ, a radio and TV station in his native Johnson City, Tenn. After five years and a promotion to radio program director, Mr. Sams, with wife Shirlene and children, moved to Lexington, Ky., where he did weather broadcasts and played Santa Claus on a children's program. He came to WJBF in 1961. In addition to playing Trooper Terry, he did the morning news and served as a weather forecaster.
Mr. Sams retired Trooper Terry's uniform in 1981.
"It was just time," Mr. Sams says. "I was doing too much. It was time to move on. I was the station manager, with an out-of-town management, and then I was the general manager. I just didn't have the time anymore."
Even though he's retired, viewers still see Mr. Sams on WJBF. He goes to the station on Monday mornings to tape the Community Calendar and other public service announcements. Mr. Sams serves on the board of the Salvation Army and is active at First Baptist Church of North Augusta, where he plays trombone in the orchestra. Eight of his nine grandchildren play musical instruments, he notes with pride. For kicks, he travels to Tennessee, where half the grandchildren and his parents live. Mr. Sams' father is 90; his mother is 85. The Trooper comes from solid stock.
Mr. Sams has been approached about making a Trooper Terry comeback and says it's possible.
"I'm just eternally grateful for how the program was received and perceived," Mr. Sams says. "We did not try to educate; we tried to entertain. People probably remember the show as a lot better than it actually was."
Fans still recognize him as Trooper Terry. Recently, Mr. Sams went to inquire about an item he saw in a want ad. When he got to the house, the woman - Karen Chiera of North Augusta - ran inside and came out with the tiny cat costume she'd worn on The Trooper Terry Show.
"She said, `Hey, do you remember this?' And she held it up," says Mr. Sams. Grinning, the man who used to end his show saying, "Wave bye with a smile on your face, or I'll bite you on the nose," shrugs his shoulders and says, "small world."