At the funeral of the Late Mr Sam Sheppard on Saturday, at First Derry Presbyterian Church, the Minister, Rev Dr David Latimer told the congregation that he had rarely seen such a groundswell of sympathy following someone’s passing.
He also commented on how the use of social media had seen news of the death of the popular former caretaker at Ebrington Primary School travel at speed throughout the community, with messages of sympathy mingled with memories of happier times, including occasions when Mr Sheppard had played the role of Santa Claus, or pulled out all the stops for a colleague.
“Rarely in 30 years as a parish minister have I witnessed the groundswell of sympathy that has accompanied Sammy’s death, which occurred last Saturday afternoon in his own home,” he said continuing: “Within a few hours of Mark finding his dad lying lifeless on the living room floor, Facebook postings rapidly spread the sad news of Sammy’s unexpected passing all around our city and well beyond Northern Ireland’s land borders.
“The way for instance former pupils, whose contact with Sammy goes back to the time when he was caretaker of Ebrington Primary School, have posted facebook messages about the man, who according to former principal Mr Wright, always went ‘the extra mile’ is by any standards impressive. All who took time to post a facebook message need to know how valuable their comments have been for both Ralph and Mark. It would be remiss of me not to share a couple of these lovely messages with you. Listen please, if you will, to the following: Rip Sammy. A lot of good memories from Ebrington. Always smiling and doing magic; A true gentlemen and a fantastic caretaker; One in a million. They don’t make them like him anymore. Fond memories.
Rev Latimer said this simply scratched the surface and went on to relate how 25 years as school caretaker saw Sammy Sheppard assuming many different roles with Mr Sheppard helping behind the scenes with the stage management of school plays and musical productions, acting as referee, dressed in his TA issue long blue shorts, during senior house football matches every Friday afternoon and pinpointing emerging talent on the field.
He said Mr Sheppard was also remembered for his “distinctive dentistry skills” with a ‘magic thread’ which was very successfully used to painlessly and speedily extract numerous loose milk teeth.
“And of course a school Christmas party would have been incomplete without Santa, which annually was another of Sammy’s roles. One particular Christmas that stands out above the others for hundreds of children included the surprise landing of a helicopter in the school ground, from which Santa, alias Sammy Sheppard, emerged with his red bag full of goodies,” Rev Latimer said.
“Given the quite beautiful relationship Sammy established with a generation of children at Ebrington helps us to understand why so many are saddened by his death, its because he was a very special person,” he said.
Rev Latimer went on to talk about Mr Sheppard’s employment history, and he said that prior to taking up the position of school caretaker, Mr Sheppard’s first job was on the production line at Brewster’s Biscuit Factory in Little James Street, and he had served his time as a coach builder with the Londonderry and Lough Swilly Railway Company. From this he moved to the Ulster Transport Authority where for 13 years he was a bus driver.
“In addition to his day job Sammy Sheppard, like many others around this city, joined the TA serving with 931 Company Royal Army Services Corps. In the 1950’s Sammy was involved with providing armed security at Caw Camp during the official IRA terrorist campaign,” said Rev Latimer, adding: “Sammy loved the TA and by the end of his military career had progressed to become Sqn Sgt Major of 211 Sqn Royal Corps of Transport. After leaving the TA Sammy’s connection with HM Forces continued as he chose to serve with the Army Cadet Force, reaching on retirement the position of Captain, being the Officer Commanding Caw Troop Royal Logistics Corps.
“Sammy Sheppard was also greatly involved with all the Loyal Orders. He was a member of the Apprentice Boys of Derry, serving as Governor from 1986 to1991.
“Within the Orange Institution Sammy was Worshipful Master of LOL 1689 and No 4 District and he was also Worshipful Master of 331 Royal Black Preceptory. It is recalled how, during The Troubles when expressions by Protestants of their culture was being challenged, Sammy’s steady, trusted leadership together with his people skills and confidence as a Protestant to confidently share his views with those of a different tradition, helped to pave the way for the ABOD to communicate their culture in a respectful and dignified way.”
When he retiree, Sammy and his late wife, Betty, took the opportunity, while still enjoying good health, to travel. They fitted in a QE2 cruise, a flight on Concorde and a dinner at the top of the World Trade Center. Sammy and Betty also fulfilled a lifelong ambition and that was to visit New Zealand where Sammy’s brother, Clive, lives.
Sammy was blessed to have the steady support of his two sons Ralph and Mark and Rev Latimer spoke of his love of his family: “Family was top priority for the Sheppard’s. Christmas and the New Year for example was spent with Sammy being in Yorkshire with his sons, daughter-in-law Julie and grandchildren Dominic, Alexander and William.”
He continued: “A life packed so full with activity amazingly had space for worship. Sammy was a lifelong member of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, connected with Claremont until its closure in 1996 when he transferred to First Derry. Sammy, whose attendance at church was as regular as clockwork, served on the Congregational Committee.
“Sammy Sheppard who was a faithful member of the church on earth has, by dying, seamlessly moved through the door of death into the nearer presence of Him who said, ‘I give unto my sheep eternal life and they shall never perish and no one shall snatch them out of my hand’,” said Rev Latimer.
Hymns for the funeral service were chosen by Mr Sheppard and Old and New Testament lessons were read by Col Kevin Halus, Regional Chairman, Royal Army Services Corp and Mr Denis Desmond, Lord Lieutenant for the County of Londonderry.
Heartfelt sympathy is extended to Sammy’s sons Ralph and Mark, daughter in law Julie, grandsons Dominic, Alexander and William, brother Clive, sisters Anne and Adelle, sister in law Peggy and brother in law Mike.