From South Africa to Presidential Award

For Dorothy and Victor Sam, there’s a lot more at stake at each election than just voting.

Orange County
Registrar of Voters
Orange County Poll Worker Insights

The first time Dorothy Sam voted in an election in America, she said a prayer afterwards. It was the 2000 presidential election, and the new citizen was casting her vote at a polling place located at a church in Orange County. “It was very fulfilling,” Dorothy recalls. “I was humbly proud to be voting as an American for the first time. The fact that it was in a church made it feel even more reverent, so I said a prayer after I voted.” She had to say that prayer without her husband, Victor, who was still undergoing the citizenship process and not yet able to vote.

At nearly 60 years of age, Dorothy and Victor Sam were relative newcomers to voting back in 2000. The South African natives had only cast their first ballot in 1994, after more than 50 years of having no political freedom under their country’s system of racial segregation known as apartheid. Both born to Chinese immigrants to South Africa, the Sams were classified as “non-whites,” denied political representation, and required to attend racially segregated schools, medical facilities, and other public institutions. Despite the prohibitions against political activity, Dorothy and Victor both risked imprisonment by joining in protest movements in South Africa and eventually met at a political rally. They married several years later in 1963.

Victor keeps a picture of a 1956 protest he participated in.  “A friend of mine gave me a picture of the rally many years ago but told me to keep it hidden. I finally looked at it years later and realized why: I was in the picture, and if anyone had ever identified me, I could have been thrown in jail.”

Victor and Dorothy finally received the right to vote in South Africa in 1994, when, for the first time in their lives, free elections with universal adult suffrage were held. The two joined millions of other South Africans and waited in long queues to elect Nelson Mandela as president. “We had to participate,” Victor explains. “We wanted to make a statement.”

These days, the Sams are more engaged in the political process than they ever dreamed possible when growing up in Johannesburg. After moving to the United States in the late 1990s to be closer to their children who were attending colleges in America, the Sams became involved with local political groups, earning opportunities to meet members of Congress and even the President. Victor and Dorothy stood only a few feet away from President Bush at his inaugural ball in 2000 and recall being urged at various events by Senators Bill Frist, James Warner, and James Inhofe to become politically active.

The couple has volunteered their Anaheim house for use as a polling place since 2002 and served as Clerks and Inspectors at Orange County elections ever since. Victor credits the 2000 election for getting them involved as poll workers. “We saw what happened in Florida, and we got curious. We wanted to find out what happens to votes, so we volunteered to be poll workers.”

To South Africans who weren’t able to vote for most of their lives, being part of a transparent and fair election process is a source of pride and a matter of duty.  “We’ve always kept in mind that every vote counts. Always give your very best as a poll worker. Your honesty and accuracy at the polling place affect the accuracy of the votes,” says Dorothy, who decorates their house patriotically every election. She and Victor prefer to work together as a team on Election Day, with Dorothy acting as Inspector and Victor supporting her in a Clerk role to help move voters through the process as smoothly and efficiently as possible.

In recognition of ten years of dedicated and outstanding volunteer service, the Registrar of  Voters presented Victor and Dorothy Sam with the President’s Service Award in January 2012 at a department-wide meeting. Neal Kelley, Registrar of Voters, nominated the two for the award as a way to thank them for their hard work and commitment to Orange County elections. The award is given by the President’s Council on Service and Civic Participation to recognize and thank Americans who have demonstrated commitment to  volunteer service over their lifetime. “We really appreciate all of your service with our office, and want to recognize all of your efforts and the hundreds of hours you have put in,” Neal said as he presented the award to the Sams.

The Sams were surprised and deeply touched by the award. “We feel very humbled,” Victor told the Registrar of Voters staff as he accepted the award. “It’s been our greatest passion to be with the Registrar of Voters. It’s been like a family to us. Thank you so much for the honor.”

The two plan on volunteering at future elections as a way to continue to contribute to their community.

In 1995, Nelson Mandela, seeking to bring unity to a country that had been deeply divided for decades, led a national movement to support the Springboks (the South African national rugby team) at the Rugby World Cup held in South Africa that year. Many Americans are familiar with this story through the 2009 Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon film Invictus that chronicles Mandela’s efforts to unite the country through sport. The Sams are familiar with this story at a much more personal level.

Victor and Dorothy ran a medical practice for many years in South Africa. Victor practiced family medicine and Dorothy assisted him as a pharmacy technician. The couple, drawing upon their Chinese heritage, were among the first in the country to use acupuncture. So in 1995, when Springbok star Chester Williams had to withdraw from the national rugby team due to injury, he turned to the Sams for treatment – successfully.

“He responded so well to the acupuncture that eventually we treated five members of the rugby team for injuries after they saw him able to get back in the game,” says Dorothy, who has an autographed picture from Chester Williams thanking the Sams for their treatment. Williams and the Springbok team went on to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

 “If you don’t stimulate your legs, your hands, your arms, you don’t stimulate your mind,” Dorothy says about acupuncture. Victor and Dorothy’s approach to life is a lot like their view on acupuncture: constant stimulation and activity as a way to enjoy life. The two, now retired, participate in AARP advocacy efforts, teach computer classes for seniors, lead boating safety classes through their boating club, and volunteer in efforts related to memory and aging. They also remain politically active and helped organize a successful fight against the city of Anaheim’s attempt to annex their unincorporated “West Island” neighborhood in 2005.

In between volunteer work and political activity, the Sams enjoy spending time with their family, including three children and two grandchildren, visiting national parks, fishing, and learning more about their Chinese heritage.

“We are treating our retirement like a profession,” Victor says. “Our motto is ‘Serve rather than be served.’ We are proud to be Americans.”