Provence, Sammie Lynn (1949–1982)


By: Ray F. Lucas

Type: Biography

Published: July 8, 2021

Updated: July 8, 2021


Sammie Lynn “Sam” Provence, disability rights activist, was born in Hill County, Texas, on March 8, 1949. He was the son of Ernest Ervin Provence and Mildred Marie (Harris) Provence.

Sam Provence had two sisters and one brother. At the age of nine, he contracted bulbar polio, which left him with quadriplegia and reliant on a ventilator to breathe. He was reportedly the last person diagnosed with polio in Tarrant County. He was first admitted to John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth on December 9, 1958, and celebrated his tenth birthday from an iron lung while in the hospital. He spent several months at the Texas Institute of Rehabilitation and Research in Houston in 1959 and returned home to Arlington in October of that year. Charity drives supplied Provence and his family with the necessary assistive technologies for him to live at home, with the March of Dimes raising more than $10,000. Donations provided an iron lung, a chest respirator, a suction machine, a wheelchair, a portable lift, and a generator for Sam’s care.

After returning home, he joined the Cub Scouts. As a teenager he participated with other local residents with disabilities in a monthly party called the “Funwyze Club” in Grand Prairie. Provence completed elementary school and junior high via a homebound instructor who visited periodically. He graduated from Sam Houston High School in Arlington, and the school allowed him to attend a few classes in person. He attended the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA) and earned a bachelor of business administration in 1971 and a master’s degree in history in 1979. According to his siblings, he wanted to attend law school after college but was denied admission to two universities because their campuses were inaccessible.

While attending college, Provence advocated assistance for himself and other students with disabilities. He helped form the Handicapped Students Association at UTA in September 1968 and served as its first president. In August 1970, in response to a campaign by the Handicapped Students Association, the university built thirty concrete ramps connecting various sidewalks to the street. These concrete ramps replaced wooden ones built years before. The association also sought to establish accessible student housing at the university. Provence co-wrote a proposal for an $85,000 grant to help remove architectural barriers on the campus, and he helped establish the university’s handicapped student services office. UTA became a university of choice for students with disabilities in part due to Provence’s activism. Provence, other students with disabilities, and UTA administrators also worked to make water fountains, public telephones, parking spaces, and restrooms more accessible. After graduating from UTA in 1971, Provence worked as a stockbroker. Starting in 1977 he worked as a counselor for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).  

In late 1976 Provence, his mother, disabled UTA alumni John Dycus (who co-founded the Handicapped Students Association), Jim Hayes, and others established the Arlington Handicapped Study Group, an advocate organization for people with disabilities. The group was incorporated the following year as the Arlington Handicapped Association and renamed Helping Restore Ability in 1999. Provence was elected the association’s first president.  The association’s goals included establishing a paratransit service; opening an “adult day care,” where disabled adults could socialize; and creating apartments with aid staff capable of caring for severely disabled residents. In May 1978 the association opened a twice weekly Day Enrichment Center for disabled individuals overseen by a paid director.

In mid-1980 the association received a $17,000 grant from the Texas Rehabilitation Commission to renovate an apartment complex in Arlington to provide for severely disabled residents. Provence worked as the housing coordinator for the association from 1980 to 1981. In April 1981, when he was thirty-two, Provence was one of the first residents to move into the renovated apartments. It was the first time in his life he lived away from his family. Provence and the association were instrumental in establishing Handitran, a paratransit service in Arlington. At the request of the Arlington Handicapped Association, the Texas Rangers made curb cuts and added ramps and handicapped-dedicated parking at Arlington Stadium to aid fans with disabilities.

Provence served the Arlington community on several boards and committees. He was on the Goodwill Industries Long Range Planning Committee, 1979–80; a member of the Lone Star Transit Authority Handicapped Advisory Committee, 1979–80; the Arlington Public School Handicapped Advisory Board, 1980–81; the United Way Arlington Human Services Task Force, 1980; and the City of Arlington Handicapped Transit Advisory Committee, 1980–81. Provence routinely spoke at city council meetings in Arlington and pushed for equal access and rights for people with disabilities.

Provence never married. He was a lifelong resident of Arlington and a member of the Meadow Lane Baptist Church. He died from cardiac arrest on October 27, 1982, at Arlington Memorial Hospital. He had been hospitalized for pneumonia, which contributed to his death. He was buried in Parkdale Cemetery in Arlington, Texas. Prior to his death, Provence was working as a student teacher at Lamar High School in preparation for becoming a teacher himself. In 1986 the Arlington Handicapped Association created the Sam Provence Award to honor people or groups who worked to benefit people with disabilities.

Evelyn Barker, ed., Historic Tales of Arlington, Texas (Stroud, United Kingdom: History Press, 2018). Trevor Engel and Sarah F. Rose, Building a Barrier-Free Campus: The History of Accessibility at the University of Texas at Arlington, online exhibit, University of Texas at Arlington, 2016 (https://library.uta.edu/barrier-freecampus/), accessed June 30, 2021. Fort Worth Star-Telegram, August 30, 1970; May 31, 1977; November 7, 1982; July 29, 2005. Grand Prairie Daily News, March 17, 1977. Sammie Provence Papers, Texas Disability History Collection, UTA Libraries (https://library.uta.edu/txdisabilityhistory/collection/sammie-provence-papers), accessed June 30, 2021. Provence’s Siblings, Sam Provence’s siblings, Interview conducted by Sarah F. Rose and Trevor Engel in 2015 in Plainview, Texas, Transcription by Nichole Sheridan, Texas Disability History Collection, University of Texas at Arlington (https://library.uta.edu/txdisabilityhistory/sites/default/files/pdf/ProvenceSiblingsInterviewbyTrevorEngel%26SarahRose7November2015.pdf), accessed June 30, 2021.

Categories:
  • Activism and Social Reform
  • Activists
  • Health and Medicine
Time Periods:
  • Texas Post World War II
Places:
  • North Texas
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Ray F. Lucas, “Provence, Sammie Lynn,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 27, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/provence-sammie-lynn.

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July 8, 2021
July 8, 2021

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