Howard Samples has a unique autograph written in the floor of the carport in his Forsyth County home: "Junior S., 1983."
His father, Junior Samples, the celebrated comedian on the "Hee Haw" television show, scrawled his name in the wet cement after he and his sons completed the house on a dirt road off Settingdown Road. He had drawn the plans for the house for Howard's family on a sheet of notebook paper.
A few months later, Nov. 13, he died at age 57 after becoming sick at his own home just across the field.
Howard Samples was 12 years old when his father first became famous. He remembers how it happened. His uncle had a fish in the back of his pickup truck at the old racetrack at Sawnee Mountain. Junior picked it up, and somebody began to ask him about it.
Prone to tell tall tales, Junior, a frequent fisherman, kidded it was a record bass he caught in Lake Lanier. He made up the story, and it got all out of proportion, Howard said.
Word spread that Junior had caught the world's record bass, and the Game and Fish Commission sent Jim Morrison to Forsyth County to record the story with Junior. Samples tried to talk Morrison out of it because it was just a joke, but Morrison kept insisting, so Junior decided he would really tell him a story. Radio stations began to play the hilarious recording, and soon it was made into a record, "The World's Biggest Whopper."
Primarily scratching out a living sawmilling, hauling pulpwood or carpentering, Junior had to give that up to make personal appearances. "Hee Haw" producers noticed, and Junior instantly became a favorite in the cast of country characters, stumbling his way through his lines to make him more genuine and funny.
The celebrity changed the Samples family's life. "We didn't have nothing," Howard Samples said. "We never had running water till 1968." He didn't get his first bicycle till he was 15, and it wasn't long after that his father bought him a motorcycle.
The family wasn't used to the money or attention. "It was a pretty big deal ... it was neat far as my part ... it was totally different, unreal," Howard Samples said. His father built a new home, and bought a new car for the family. Yet Junior Samples remained the same overall Forsyth County good ol' boy he'd always been.
Filming "Hee Haw" would take two to three weeks about twice a year. Most of the rest of the time, Junior could be found fishing on Lake Lanier or in tournaments on other lakes. "He was able to do what he loved to do," his son said.
All the family occasionally would go to Nashville with Junior. They would go out together with some of the "Hee Haw" characters, and watch as they signed autographs or posed for pictures.
Growing up with his father wasn't easy, Howard said. When Junior drank, he could get mean, and the children would stay away from him. But his son said he was proud of his father because he didn't drink the last 10 years of his life. "He became a totally different man," Howard Samples said.
An interviewer once asked Junior (his real name was Alvin) about church, and he replied that he mostly went when somebody died. But he said, "I have been saved," and began to give his testimony.
That is one of Howard's favorite memories of his father. "It is precious to me," he said.
A sixth grade dropout, his father nevertheless was a wise man, Howard Samples said. "He told me, and I've told my boys, ‘If you work, you may get down, but you won't stay down.' I've found that to be true."
Howard works at Hoover Precision Products, a ball bearings plant. All his brothers and sisters, Emory, Helen Garrett, David, J.W. and Kathy Reeves, work. Howard and his wife Donna have two sons. He is a deacon at Christian Hill Baptist Church.
Family members watch over Junior's widow, Grace, 84. "She's the greatest mama in the world, Howard says.
And of his father, he says, "Looking back on it right now, he was a gem."
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA; phone, 770-532-2326. His column appears Sundays and on gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.