As part of his many duties administering Jack Kerouac’s estate, John Sampas spent time tending his famous brother-in-law’s grave in Lowell’s Edson Cemetery, retrieving what fans left to honor the author of “On the Road.”
He might come across an empty tobacco bag — “Jack smoked a pipe,” Mr. Sampas noted — or a trumpet mouthpiece that was an homage to Kerouac’s love of jazz. One fan left a woman’s shoe that had seen better days. “I’d say that’s been on the road,” Mr. Sampas quipped.
He stored some of the items he retrieved in boxes he kept in the Lowell home where he grew up and lived much of his life. Now and then he chanced upon a loyal reader sitting alone, speaking aloud into eternity in the hope that Kerouac could hear. “They come to talk to Jack,” Mr. Sampas told the Globe in 2002 with a faint smile.
Mr. Sampas, whose stewardship of Kerouac’s estate drew praise, occasional criticism, and court challenges as he guided numerous unpublished writings into print, died of cancer March 9 in his Greenwich, Conn., home. He was 84 and had lived in Lowell for many years, before moving last fall to reside closer to his son.
“John was very passionate, very smart,” said George Tobia, Mr. Sampas’ lawyer and longtime friend. “He was always interested in any project that would further the legacy and he really became a historian about anything Jack ever did.”
Like Mr. Sampas, Kerouac grew up in Lowell. The writer was friends with Mr. Sampas’ older siblings, including his sister Stella Sampas. In 1966, she became Kerouac’s third wife, and his widow when he died in 1969 at age 47. Kerouac’s mother, Gabrielle, died in 1973. When Stella died in 1990, she left her estate to her family, and Mr. Sampas was designated the executor, according to his son, John Shen-Sampas of Greenwich, Conn.
“He was afraid of the spotlight, but also willing to fight for Kerouac,” his son said. “On the professional level, he was extremely devoted to the Kerouac estate. All he wanted to do was to bring Kerouac to the world so everyone could read Kerouac.”
Two years ago, the University of Massachusetts Lowell recognized Mr. Sampas with an honorary degree. The university praised him for making more of Kerouac’s work available to readers, and for contributing to the Lowell Celebrates Kerouac celebrations. Mr. Sampas also helped establish the Jack and Stella Kerouac Center and the John Sampas Endowed Scholarship Fund, according to the university.
In 2007, 50 years after “On the Road” was published, Mr. Sampas was called upon to accept the honorary doctorate that UMass Lowell awarded Kerouac.
With Mr. Sampas as executor, the estate published many previously unseen Kerouac manuscripts, including collections of his letters. Those volumes were a boon to scholars and a trove for ardent fans who wanted to know more about Kerouac’s day-to-day life.
Some purist fans were less fond of other moves. Actor Johnny Depp reportedly paid $15,000 in the early 1990s for the writer’s old raincoat, and Kerouac’s image and words were licensed for advertising, notably in The Gap’s “Kerouac wore khakis” campaign. In addition, the Lowell Spinners minor league baseball team has given away Kerouac bobblehead dolls.
In an interview that is posted on C-SPAN’s website, Mr. Sampas mused about the challenges he faced while fielding requests involving his brother-in-law’s writings and photos. “It’s very difficult, because we don’t want to seem commercial, but at the same time we have to manage an estate,” he said. “We have to pay fees to lawyers, to agents, so it’s a very fine line.”
In that C-SPAN video, he focused on his principal motivation as executor: “Getting all these letters out and these books, the world will see what a genius Jack Kerouac is and was.”
John Sampas was born and grew up in Lowell, a son of Greek immigrants. His father, George, worked in different jobs, including at a mill and helping to run a bar. His mother, Maria, was a homemaker.
After graduating from Lowell High School, Mr. Sampas attended Marietta College in Ohio and Boston Conservatory, and left both before receiving a degree.
During the Korean War, he enlisted in the Air Force and was stationed in Kansas and Morocco, his son said.
After his stint in the military, Mr. Sampas worked in a government job in Washington, D.C., and at a mutual funds firm in Boston before returning to Lowell and entering the antiques business.
According to a tribute written by his son, Mr. Sampas’ memories of Kerouac date back to childhood. He was 7 when a song he later would learn was being sung by Billie Holiday drew him to peek into his family’s living room. Inside, Mr. Sampas’ older brother Sebastian and Kerouac sat listening to the record. As the years progressed, the young Mr. Sampas avidly listened as his brother, Kerouac, and their friends discussed music and literature.
Mr. Sampas, his son said, “was always well-read, and books were his passion.”
Over the years, Mr. Sampas and the Kerouac estate were involved in court actions involving the will left by Kerouac’s mother, Gabrielle, and the will left by Kerouac’s widow, Stella. On the other side of the challenges were Jan Kerouac — the writer’s only child, who died in 1996 — and Paul Blake Jr., a nephew of the writer.
Because Jack Kerouac died in Florida, the probate case was heard there, and a judge in 2009 declared that Gabrielle Kerouac’s will was a forgery. The Sampas family, however, had inherited the Kerouac estate through the will of Stella, which was not contested. Mr. Sampas continued to administer the estate.
“He protected the estate and the legacy ferociously,” said Tobia, who along with representing Mr. Sampas and the Kerouac estate counts among his clients the literary estate of the late gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. “He was really a steady guardian — as thorough and detailed as anyone I can imagine anyone in this job.”
In addition to his son, Mr. Sampas leaves his twin, Helen Surprenant of Dracut. A service will be announced.
For many years, the marker for Kerouac’s grave in Edson Cemetery was a small, simple slab that was flush with the ground. In 2014, a 3,000-pound memorial stone was added. On it is a representation of the writer’s signature and the inscription “The Road is Life” — a line from Kerouac’s still-popular novel “On the Road.”
“I could have picked lots of things, but that was so succinct,” Mr. Sampas told the Globe at the time.
To those who knew Mr. Sampas, it’s no surprise he paid such close attention to the words that appear on his brother-in-law’s memorial stone.
“The image I would like to preserve of Jack is the image that Jack himself would like to preserve, and that is of a great American author,” Mr. Sampas said in the C-SPAN video. “He always aspired to be a writer. He always wanted to succeed at being a writer. He was pregnant with writing, and he succeeded.”Bryan Marquard can be reached at [email protected].