My VIP for this week is Andrew Sirb. I would not have heard of this man except that he is the father-in-law of one of my classmates, and a mutual friend posted an article about him and his son. I was also attracted by the title of the article, which is “What it means to be an American: Son of immigrants serves as Utah judge for three decades.”
Andrew was born on February 25, 1894, in Beliu, Romania. It just so happened that baby girl named Flora Toma was born on the same day, in the same month, in the same year and on the same street. Her name was Flora Toma. The babies grew to be childhood playmates, then teenage sweethearts, and then husband and wife. They were married in April 1993 and were soon making plans to escape to freedom just before the beginning of World War I.
It just so happened that Flora qualified for a visa, but Andrew did not. So, they decided that he should escape to America and then send for her. After she sewed money into his boots and shirt collar, he began walking across Europe. He was arrested and given a two-week jail term for traveling without proper paperwork. Then he was taken to the railroad station where he was ordered to return to Beliu. He caught another train “by accident” and continued his travel towards America.
He walked much of the way across what was then called Austria-Hungary, some 750 miles, with the help of farmers along the way, but after crossing into Germany he was picked up by the army and delivered to a gruff, terse officer. He decided to tell the truth, and after hearing Andrew’s story, the German officer’s demeanor softened, and he hatched a plan to help the young man. They posed as father and son as the officer led Andrew through processing, got him a visa and passport, and put him on a ship bound for the U.S. He also enabled Andrew to wire Flora, telling her that he was en route to America, and so she began her journey there, slipping out of Europe just as the war began.
Andrew arrived in America and “Somewhere in the immigration process … his name was changed to Sam on the official paperwork.” He liked the sound of “Sam” and frequently told his children, “How fortunate we are not only to be citizens of the greatest nation, but to bear the name of Sam, like Uncle Sam.”
Arriving in Philadelphia, Andrew continued to travel west to Ohio, where he had been told immigrants could obtain work in the Carnegie steel mill, and for the next four decades that’s where he labored. Flora joined him in Indiana, and they settled on a 20-acre farm near Hobart, raising nine son (one died in infancy) and two daughters.
Andrew was passionate about America and freedom and had no patience for anything that threatened those things, real or perceived….
On their small farm, the Sams had an orchard and a large garden, beehives, a milk cow, a hog and chickens. They were industrious, athletic and resourceful. They nailed a bushel basket to the side of the barn with the bottom cut out to create a basketball hoop. They stuffed a feed sack with newspaper and wrapped it with bailed twine to fashion a ball. Joe one day would score 57 points in a high school basketball game, which stood as an Indiana state record for years, and both Joe and David were awarded basketball scholarships. The older half of the children became general contractors and steelworkers, and the younger half went to college and became a Navy officer, a judge, a Ph. D, and a dean at the University of Mississippi.
Joe read about BYU basketball players and decided that he wanted to go to school at BYU. The first person that he met was a returned missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They became lifelong friends, and Joe joined the Church of Jesus Christ. He dropped out of school after one semester for lack of money to continue. He returned home and converted several members of his family, including his youngest brother David.
David was high school student body president and star of the basketball team. He went to Valparaiso for one year and then joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He served a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ and met Orrin Hatch in the mission home. David graduated from BYU, earned a law degree at the University of Utah, and was in the judge advocate general corps while serving for three years in the Air Force. He was a county attorney and commissioner for 25 years and then applied for a vacancy on the U.S. District Court in 1985.
David and his wife Bettie had six children and adopted two girls. In 1999 while David and Bettie were in the process of preparing for a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ, Bettie was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease. She passed away 18 months later on August 27, 2000. He was devastated and wanted to die also. However, my friend Bennie went to him about five years later with a legal problem. They had met about 45 years earlier, and they began to date. They were married in January 2005.
[Judge David Sam] likes to tell his family’s story when he conducts naturalization hearings. He discusses what it means to be an American, and often the new citizens respond with stories of their own. Hearing the story of Sam’s father, an FBI agent and immigration official did some genealogical work for the judge and presented him with photos of the ships that brought his father and mother to America.
Looking back, Sam thinks again of his father for a moment before saying: “How will I ever repay him for what he did? How impossible it was – what he did and what happened. We came from nothing, a peasant village, and what a blessing to be here in this great land and experience the things that we’ve been blessed to experience.”