Marianas Variety

Last updateTue, 10 Dec 2019 12am







    Monday, December 9, 2019-1:05:51P.M.






Font Size


Sam McPhetres ‘graduating’ at 74

SAMUEL McPhetres, a world adventurer who at 74 years is “graduating” with the class of 2012 of Northern Marianas College in just eight days.

Sam McPhetres with a few of his students at the Northern Marianas College on Tuesday. Contributed photoSam McPhetres with a few of his students at the Northern Marianas College on Tuesday. Contributed photoThe man who many call “an island institution” will retire this month after 20 years of teaching young minds to question, study and think.

Variety sat with the fascinating Sam for a peek into his 40-years bouncing around the Pacific Islands.

Adventure in his bones

Perhaps McPhetres was destined to live in remote, beautiful places for he was born and raised in Alaska among rugged people, landscapes and weather.

The adventurer wandered early and far in life and travelled south for sunshine and a bachelor of political science degree at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

More traveling and more education ensued in 1960 as he ventured east to France for a master’s degree in international relations and linguistics at the Centre Europeén des Études Superieures.

With idealism and advanced degrees, McPhetres did what many well-educated and gifted college graduates of the 1960s did; he joined President John F. Kennedy’s Peace Corps.

The idealistic and well-educated man first taught English in Ecuador in Latin America and then became a teacher in an inner-city minority school in Washington, D.C.

Go east young man

As his feet grew itchy once more, McPhetres flew off to the mysterious continent of Africa and was an educator in Somalia until the Soviets decided that Americans had to go — and quickly.

McPhetres hopped in a small plane and took off for a remote village to pick up other Peace Corps volunteers and while the pilot napped he took over the controls only to have the gentlemen awake to “the aircraft literally shaving the hair off the backs of camels on the desert floor.”

As Africa began to develop into a front-line proxy for the U.S.-Soviet Cold War the man of a thousands tales flew east once more and landed on a lush speck of land in the Pacific Ocean called Truk (now Chuuk).

Again, he assumed the role of Peace Corps director and teacher for the community and soon met a Catholic nun who after an “interesting courtship” (as McPhetres described it), became his wife.

More interesting experiences were to follow including a flight into Korsae that ended with a wickedly strong wind-shear upending his aircraft that left McPhetres strapped to the seat upside down.

As islanders rushed to pull him from the plane’s wreckage he greeted them with a comment that would be his legacy on the tiny outpost, “I wish I had taken a ship here.”

The local medical staff was so concerned the injured foreigner had sustained major head trauma that they shot him up with enough tranquilizers for an entire day and when he awoke there was quizzing about a “brown suitcase.”

McPhetres replied he didn’t have a brown suitcase and jab, the medic plied him full of another large dose of narcotics that lasted for an extended 48 hours.

The brown bag was presented to McPhetres after the drugs wore off to which he replied, “That’s a camera bag, not a suitcase!”

What a perfect example of “cultural linguistics and how easily situations are misunderstood between cultures,” commented McPhetres as the decade-old memory flooded back to the present time.

Upon returning to Kosrae on a subsequent trip a friend of McPhetres’ referenced the plane crash by introducing him in Trukese as “The man who should have died.”

40 years and counting

The former nun, who now was Mrs. McPhetres, eventually led the newly minted husband on a journey to the island of her family origin, Saipan.

The year was 1973 when the couple began to nest on yet another remote, small island of the Pacific Trust Territories.

McPhetres accepted a position as a public information and education specialist with the TT’s high commissioner’s office where he worked elbow-to-elbow with every major Micronesian political and cultural player of the time.

For almost a decade the budding historian, anthropologist, diplomat and educator stood among those deciding the fate of Micronesia in the post-TT period.

“There was never a dull moment in those days…big issues to debate and decide that would affect generations to come,” remarked the man who became life-long friends with many of Micronesia’s political power-brokers of the era.

As the Pacific Islands TT-era ended and the Northern Mariana Islands transitioned to a commonwealth, McPhetres turned his attention to safeguarding the historical period of which he was an active player.

Beginning in 1981 and for the next 10 years he methodically searched every box, file cabinet drawer and closet for TT documents, photos and historically important artifacts for preservation.

The decade-long archiving work now forms a good portion of the Northern Marianas College’s archives and the University of Hawaii-Manoa, Pacific Islands library.

As if the full-time archiving position was not enough, McPhetres also acted as a local liaison for the United Nations Trusteeship Council, helped raise two children and kicked-off a 20-year teaching career at NMC to name only a few of his community endeavors.

Sam the man

Every NMC employee and student Variety spoke with during the past few weeks described the local institution in the most endearing and respectful manner possible.

“Sam’s the man,” “Great teacher,” “Micronesia Encyclopedia,” “Smart and tough,” and “He’s given so much to Saipan it’s hard to list everything.”

As the white Micronesian who has seen and witnessed so many pivotal chapters in the Pacific Islands’ history it seem puzzling that McPhetres has no plans to swing his days away in a shaded hammock.

Instead the man known as Sam M. rented an office in Garapan and intends to sift through his life artifacts and perhaps pen his third book.

“I’ve invested in a state-of-the-art computer system that can scan and organize most of the prized possessions collected over decades,” he explained as excitement drifted through his voice and his eyes sparkled.

When asked if it would be a “kiss-n-tell” tome along the lines of P.F. Kluge books he shook his head no.

Seems the man who knows so much about so many is far more fascinated with documenting history and cultural insights as opposed to personalities and island gossip.

It will be interesting indeed to read the writings of a man so well educated and travelled who ventures to leave the gift of knowledge for generations that will follow; including his six grandchildren.

As Kennedy said when founding the Peace Corp: “But if the life will not be easy, it will be rich and satisfying.”

The Marianas Variety offers its appreciation and congratulations to Sam for his contributions to the community and wish him happy writing.