Sam G. Riley III, professor of communication in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences at Virginia Tech, died on Wednesday, March 19, with family by his side. He was 74.
A member of the Virginia Tech faculty since 1981, Riley taught undergraduate and graduate courses in journalism, magazine writing, the history of mass media, communications law, travel writing, and public speaking, to name a few. He also served as head of the department for four years.
"Sam Riley was a first-rate scholar, a wonderful colleague, and a legend among our graduates,” said Robert Denton Jr., head of the Department of Communication and Chair of the Rice Center for Leader Development in the Pamplin College of Business. “He was popular with students, and a mentor for them and faculty alike. He literally touched the lives of thousands. I will miss his sense of humor, kindness, and can-do attitude. Sam has left a legacy of excellence to the department, journalism education, and Virginia Tech.”
Riley authored 10 books on the history of the magazine publishing industry; three books on newspaper columnists and their work; a two-book encyclopedia on African Americans and the U.S. news media; a book on celebrity culture, accompanied by a related blog. He also published one trade paperback about how Americans use personalized license plates.
In addition, Riley penned over a thousand reference book entries on Southern newspapers and Southern magazines, as well as dozens of scholarly journal articles and conference papers on media figures and topics.
Besides a dapper presence punctuated by a colorful bow tie, Riley was perhaps best known as a passionate and humorous editorial writer whose opinions and stories had appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, Miami Herald, and several newspapers across Virginia. A compilation of his articles, loaded with his signature satire and irony, appeared as his 18th book titled “Mostly Merry Commentary.” Riley’s most recent book, “Things My Southern Mother Used to Say,” was published in 2013.
“Sam was, in all ways, a scholar and a gentleman,” said close friend and fellow professor Wat Hopkins. “He cared about his discipline; he cared about this department; he cared about his students, and he cared about his colleagues. He made us better teachers and scholars; he made us better people, and he made us laugh. We will miss him tremendously.”
Riley won awards for teaching excellence and was named National Magazine Educator of the Year in 2001 by the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. In 1999, he was founding member of the editorial board of the online Journal of Magazine and New Media Research. He continued to serve on that editorial board as well as the one for Journalism History. In his 33-year tenure at Virginia Tech, Riley served on various commissions and committees, most recently on University Council.
Prior to coming to Virginia Tech, Riley served as a professor of journalism at Georgia Southern College, where he started and headed a new undergraduate degree program in news-editorial journalism. From 1970-74, he was assistant professor of communications at Temple University, where he drafted a proposal for a master’s program in journalism, which was instituted in 1972.
From 1962 to 1964, Riley served as a publications officer in the U.S. Army where he was in charge of editing, illustrating, printing, and distributing all Army intelligence reports from Northern Europe.
Riley received his bachelor’s degree from Davidson College, and both a M.B.A. and Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina.
Riley is survived by his wife, Rebecca, his son Daniel Riley, and daughter Heather Ducote, who serves as marketing and communications director at Virginia Tech’s Center for the Arts.
A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday, March 29, in the McCoy Funeral Home Chapel in Blacksburg.