Remembering Sam Lobley, A19

A gifted writer and Phi Beta Kappa member, he passed away from complications of cystic fibrosis nine days before graduation
Sam Lobley
“Sam was a remarkably smart, upbeat, and engaged young man who was never defined by his challenges, but rather by the resolution with which he overcame them,” said English professor Lee Edelman.
May 28, 2019

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When Lisa Lobley remembers her son, Sam, she recalls a quirky kid in love with the performing arts and with books. A voracious reader, as he approached college, she was not surprised he set his sights on becoming a writer.  

Still, she said, he worried that admissions officers might think he was too sick to take on college life. In his application essay he stressed how he wanted to be seen “as a student first.” He made a persuasive point by talking about his love of the saxophone—an instrument that might appear an odd choice, given that he struggled with cystic fibrosis.

But while his faltering lungs forced him to drop out of his high school jazz band, he reflected that he could take a seat in the audience. And that change, recalled his mother, gave him what he called a “different perspective.”

“He wrote how he was looking forward to college, and how, luckily, ‘academics don’t take as much air.’ At college, he wasn’t going to be defined by illness.”

Indeed, at Tufts, Lobley excelled. He was elected in January to Phi Beta Kappa for his outstanding scholarship. While awaiting and following lung transplant surgery, he continued to make progress towards his degree. He submitted his senior thesis—a collection of short stories—just two days before he died on May 10 from complications from a lung transplant.

At commencement on May 19, his parents John and Lisa and older brothers Nicholas and Ben completed his Tufts journey for him. They attended the university-wide gathering on the Academic Quad, and later that day, they accepted his diploma at the School of Arts and Sciences ceremony. 

At Tufts’ commencement, Sam Lobley’s parents John and Lisa and his older brothers, from left, Nicholas and Ben, with his diploma. Photo: Alonso Nichols “I felt his spirit all day,” said Lisa. “I had promised myself and Sam that I was not going to cry. I told him I’m going to accept that diploma with a smile on my face, as Sam would have, because he did have a lovely smile.” But when actress and commencement speaker Alfre Woodard said his classmates were lucky “to have been inspired by his perspective, touched by his kindness, stirred by his ideas, and infected by his joy”—“I started to cry,” Lisa said. “What she said was so true. He was a very kind person, and a very brave person, too.”

It would, of course, take a special kind of toughness and bravery to navigate a college campus, not to mention one filled with hilly walkways, but Lobley was singularly focused on his studies. He commuted by car from an apartment in Somerville, where he lived with his mother and his beloved Chihuahua Tinkerbell.  

Faculty recognized in him as an exceptional young man and scholar. “Sam was a remarkably smart, upbeat, and engaged young man who was never defined by his challenges, but rather by the resolution with which he overcame them,” said English professor Lee Edelman.

“As a result, he stood out for his intelligence and thoughtfulness rather than for his circumstances. He had a passionate interest in ideas and absorbed new theoretical approaches so quickly that it was as if he been immersed in them all along,” Edelman said. “He also wrote with a clarity and precision that others take many years to achieve. Sam didn’t have those extra years, but in the too short span of time he had, he did what many never do: he appreciated life and he lived it.”

Lisa Lobley knows those words would have meant a great deal to her son. “He loved Tufts,” she said. “He cherished the opportunity to be a Tufts student. But then he did so well. I was joking in the fall—you’re probably going to graduate summa cum laude. And he did. It’s a reflection of his dedication to his studies and to who he was.”

A Performer from the Start

Lobley’s musical talents were obvious as a toddler. “We knew he was going to be musical when he picked up a guitar and used to follow around a friend who was a musician,” she said. “He was just two years old.” He soon played the violin, and then switched to the sax about age seven. He played all through school, and with the high school jazz band. “None of the rest of us have any talent in music,” Lisa said. “We don’t know where he got it.”

From kindergarten through twelfth grade, Lobley was a student at Portledge School on Long Island, a small independent school with a strong theater curriculum that gave free range to his love of the stage. While there, he played the lead in Oliver! in fourth grade and graduated to roles in plays that ran the gamut from Shakespeare and Chekhov to You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown and The Little Prince

School classmate and friend Ashley Herzig recalled how his love of acting carried over to good times together outside school. “I remember we’d go over to his house and stage little plays in his basement, with costumes and everything,” she said.

Lobley also endeared himself to his classmates with his wit and kindness—a big-heartedness that fueled a successful run for middle school class president.  

“He ran on the platform he was going to bring back the spring fair, which was a little carnival we used to have on Founder’s Day,” Herzig said. “I ran on something like, ‘I’ll help everyone with their homework.’ He won, of course. He was a really good person who was also really fun—and that can be a rare combination.” By senior year, his classmates voted him Most Positive Student.

Lobley cherished fun with friends. “He was killer at board games,” said Herzig, “especially Scrabble.” She recalls his love of horror movies, how he whipped up his special homemade guacamole for friends when they dropped by, and how he couldn’t wait for Christmas to come around.  

“He was one of those people for whom the entire month of December was Christmas,” she said. “He’d wear Christmas-themed clothes and the house was always decorated with nutcrackers. And New Year’s Eve we would always try to stay up all night. I remember freshman year of high school we watched the sun rise together on the new year. That was really amazing.”

Lisa Lobley adds that Sam had a special place in his heart for pigs; his pig collection would grow over the years to include all sorts of stuffed pigs and pig figurines; they even inspired a homespun play: Attack of the Pigs. She suspects it all started with a stuffed pig given to him as a baby—“Wilfred” would become his constant companion. “I have him right here on my bed,” she said. “He’s mine now.”

The Reader Becomes a Writer

Lobley was a passionate reader. One of his favorite novels, said Herzig, was The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green, about a sixteen-year-old girl with thyroid cancer that has affected her lungs. He made his long-form writing debut with a senior high school project, No One Is Innocent, a murder mystery set in Houston. At the time he was in Texas hoping for a lung transplant that did not come through.

At Tufts, he immersed himself in the English department courses, and minored in film and media studies. Lisa Lobley watched her son mature as a person and a writer over those four years and believes that his passion for writing would have translated into a career as a novelist.

While awaiting and after transplant surgery, he continued to work on his senior thesis, Not in the Image of Gods, which his advisor, English professor Jonathan Wilson, called “an extraordinary collection of deeply charged short stories.” 

Lobley emailed his thesis to the English Department on May 8, two days before he died. In the title story, he seems to be channeling his personal difficulties with cystic fibrosis through the voice of the narrator, a high schooler exhausted, frustrated, and finally openly enraged by a disease for which there is no cure.

In blowing out his breath during a hospital test, the narrator describes how “I . . . take in a large breath and blow it out as hard and as fast as I could, which is not enough to blow the fuzz off a dandelion. I can’t make wishes.” The story ends with him reassuring a Chihuahua rescue dog with a collapsed lung that he’s adopted that he won’t leave his side. “I laid down next to him, closing my eyes. All I could hear was a chorus of our labored breathing, a sign of our sickness, but also a sign that we’re alive.”

It’s a simple sentence that, in a way, is also a shaft of light piercing the heavy shadow of illness. It reflects what Lisa Lobley sees as her son’s legacy. “He was a good person—he was someone who managed to be kind and lead by example,” she said. “He was very strong. He was a fighter. The way he lived his life can be an inspiration to everybody.”

A celebration of Sam Lobley’s life will be held June 22 at 10 a.m. at Portledge School in Locust Valley, New York.

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.