Former USC chief Steven Sample is remembered for his deep faith

Sheikh Jamaal Diwan addresses over 100 people gathered at Hanh Plaza on the campus of USC for an interfaith prayer service held in memory of Steven Sample.

Sheikh Jamaal Diwan addresses over 100 people gathered at Hanh Plaza on the campus of USC for an interfaith prayer service held in memory of Steven Sample.

(Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)

Former USC President Steven B. Sample was remembered on campus Wednesday as a man of deep faith who reached out to diverse religious groups.

During an interfaith prayer service, several speakers recalled how the transformational university president hired non-traditional leaders after creating USC’s office of religious life in 1996.

The original dean, Rabbi Susan Laemmle, was the first non-Christian to hold such a position at a large U.S. university, according to USC. After she retired in 2008, Sample picked Varun Soni, a Hindu.


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Sample, an Episcopalian who prayed daily, sent USC safety officers to a Muslim mosque near the South L.A. campus on Sept. 11, 2001, to provide additional security after the terrorist attacks. He also was instrumental in bringing the Shoah Foundation, a repository of Holocaust testimonials established by filmmaker Steven Spielberg, to the campus.

“He deeply strengthened ties between USC and the Muslim and Jewish communities,” Soni said.

Sample died Tuesday at the age of 75. He served as USC’s president for 19 years before retiring in 2010.

Sample’s choices showed his independent thinking, Soni said. “I was a very out-of-the-box hire,” he said. “His vision was that the university should be where education and religion come together and not to preclude anyone because of their background.”

During the noon ceremony, current USC President C.L. Max Nikias quoted the Roman philosopher Cicero, who said, “Gratitude is not only the greatest virtue, it is the parent of all other virtues.”

“The life and work of Steven Sample has created great gratitude in the Trojan family,” Nikias told the gathering of about 250 mourners. “It will remain powerfully alive for generations to come.”

The service was held near Tommy Trojan, the life-size bronze warrior statue at the center of campus. Not far away stood a statue of the school’s equine mascot, Traveler, which Sample and his wife, Kathryn, donated to the university in 2010.

Mike Garrett, the former athletic director who was hired by Sample in 1993, recalled his former boss’ tenacity. Sample was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2001 but continued to serve as president for nine more years.

During planning meetings for the Galen Center, the basketball arena that opened in 2006, Sample would occasionally shake but never took time off from work, Garrett said.

“People would say I’m a tough guy,” said Garrett, who won the Heisman Trophy as a Trojan in 1965. “And I’d say, ‘No, Steve Sample is a tough guy.’”

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