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County Parks Pioneer Kenneth Sampson Dies


NEWPORT BEACH — Kenneth Sampson, a longtime public servant who spent more than two decades at the helm of Orange County's Harbors, Beaches and Parks District and who was the moving force behind the development of Dana Point Harbor, died Tuesday after suffering kidney failure. He was 83.

"Basically, everything that's here in the way of regional parks got started after Ken took over," said Bob Wingard, a longtime colleague of Sampson's and currently director of administration for the county's Environmental Management Agency, the parent agency of Harbors, Beaches and Parks. "He's one of the rare people that you could actually classify as a visionary."

Sampson spent 45 years in government service, most of it in Orange County, where he came in 1954 to serve as assistant planning director after working in Los Angeles for 19 years. First as an assistant planning director and later as the first director of Harbors, Beaches and Parks, Sampson oversaw tremendous expansion of Orange County's park network.

When he took over as park director in 1957, Orange County had two regional parks--Irvine and O'Neill. By 1975, Sampson had pushed the number of county parks to 12. Total park acreage during that time increased by 7,650.

Despite Sampson's record in park acquisition and development, his proudest achievement--and the one for which most of his former colleagues remember him best--was the creation of Dana Point Harbor. That project began in the 1960s as little more than a gleam in Sampson's eye but blossomed into a bustling 2,500-slip harbor by the end of his tenure.

Sampson, who grew up in Orange and then attended high school and college in Los Angeles, personally supervised much of the harbor construction, including the configurations and testing of the two breakwaters that bracket the harbor entrance.

In 1978, the Orange County Board of Supervisors dedicated a tiny park overlooking Dana Point Harbor and named it the Ken Sampson Overlook, an honor that delighted the then-retired director.

"I liked the job," Sampson said in a 1988 interview. "It was enjoyable, challenging, creative. I knew the ropes, how to get the money and how to acquire the land. I occupied the position at a time when there was great interest. We couldn't do it now because of urbanization."

He is survived by his wife, Audrey, and three children: Susanne Cunningham of Anaheim, James Sampson of Paso Robles and William Sampson of Newport Beach. He also had seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

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