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Legendary San Diego teacher honored on her 100th birthday

Mrs. Lelya Sampson celebrates her Centennial Birthday with mayoral proclamations and fanfare.

SAN DIEGO — We can all look back and remember at least one great teacher who made an impact on our lives. In this Zevely Zone, I went to Mount Hope where community members celebrated the Centennial Birthday of a legendary teacher. We were met by a crowd of people singing 'Happy Birthday" to 100-year-old Mrs. Lelya Sampson.

Credit: Mrs. Lelya Sampson

Not many people will celebrate 100 birthdays, especially with fanfare like this. Mrs. Sampson became a teacher in 1947 and gave her heart and soul to students at San Diego Unified School District. "I just feel good doing it. It makes me happy," said Mrs. Sampson who retired in 1976.

Credit: Mrs. Lelya Sampson

Her home was surrounded by loved ones, former colleagues, and students. "She is a great lady," said Freddie L. Gray. Superb, wonderful, and feisty are all words used to describe the teacher. "She was like my mother and my friend," said Janice Carter. She was Mrs. Sampson's second grade student. "She did one thing for me that I will never forget when I was sick one time, she brought me chicken noodle soup," said Janice.  

Credit: Mrs. Lelya Sampson

"She sang and lead with conviction," said Father Peter Navarra who had her in the third grade. "To this very day I am a very bad hand writer, but she had the patience with us," said Father Navarra.

Stories of goodwill went on and on, like from her godson Richard Hayes who said, "Every year on my birthday you would call me and sing Happy Birthday." Along with teaching for 29 years, Mrs. Sampson has been a lifetime member of the NAACP and the Urban League. "She is a woman of dignity. A woman of intelligence," said Reverend John Ringgold from the Bethel Baptist Church.

Credit: Mrs. Lelya Sampson

"She has been a member there for 74 years. If you stay around her for a few minutes, she is going to bring out the best in you too."

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Dr. Sharon Whitehurst-Payne who is the Vice President of the San Diego Unified School Board presented one of many proclamations. "This certificate acknowledges the work that you have done for all of our children and I want to say thanks on behalf of all of the children of San Diego," said Dr. Whitehurst-Payne.

Another proclamation was signed by Mayor Todd Gloria who proclaimed her birthday, "Mrs. Sampson Day." "I've lived a great life because of you," said Pastor Amos Johnson. He said that when he was in junior high, Mrs. Sampson shaped his life. "You've been a sister, a friend, you've been a mentor, a counselor a teacher and most of all you've been my guiding light," said Pastor Johnson.

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Mrs. Sampson was moved to tears, then taught us all, one last lesson. "Love yourself first and then love everybody," she said. Mrs. Sampson was married to the late James K. Sampson for over 70 years. He passed at the age of 95 years old in 2016. She taught at Lowell Elementary School and Chollas Elementary. She also served as School Principal at Lowell Elementary and was one of the founding members and a facilitator for the San Diego School District's Human Relations Commission.  

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