Michael Sample, FalconGuides Co-Founder, Dies at 66

It was with great shock and sadness that the FalconGuides staff learned of the sudden, tragic loss of Falcon co-founder Mike Sample, who died after a stabbing at his Billings, Mont., office on June 19. A passionate outdoor photographer, Sample launched Falcon with Bill Schneider in 1979 when they decided to create their own line of outdoor guides. Over the years, Falcon went on to become the premier publisher of outdoor recreations titles. Sample was widely known for his philanthropy, serving as vice president of the Sample Foundation, his family’s private foundation that grants money to non-profit organizations in the areas of health, social welfare, and services for underserved populations.

“Mike was attuned to the needs of others, and everyone who worked with him at Falcon felt supported by him personally and professionally,” said Falcon’s director of outdoor sales, Max Phelps, who worked with Sample in Falcon’s Helena, Mont., office in the nineties. “That Mike is now gone, in this way, is upsetting beyond words.”

Tragically, Sample’s generosity appears to have played a role in his death. It was known around Billings that he would routinely give $10 or $20 bills to people in need on the street. After eating lunch on Thursday, June 19, Sample returned shortly before 1:30 p.m. to his downtown Billings office, where three people were waiting to ask for money. After Sample gave the trio some cash, a fourth man appeared and assaulted him, pushing him into the building. Those who ran to Sample's aid saw the young man, identified by police as 23-year-old Zachariah James Wiseman, standing over him. Two men held Wiseman until the police arrived. Sample was taken to the hospital, where he later died from stab wounds.

Wiseman’s girlfriend told the police that she and her boyfriend had gone to Sample’s business before, and that Sample had given them both money on several occasions. Wiseman, who court records said was “significantly under the influence of a drug” at the time of the incident, has been charged with deliberate homicide.

“That Mike was in the habit of helping down-and-out young people comes as no surprise,” said Phelps. “But it makes his death at one of their hands all the more affecting.”

Born in New Haven, Conn., Sample was educated at Philips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and Trinity College in Hartford. He then served in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves. In the summer of 1954, Sample went to Montana, where he fell in love with the grandeur and beauty of the state’s mountains, lakes, forests, and wildlife. He developed his talent for outdoor photography, and in 1971 he produced his first “Montana Calendar,” of which he would publish 43 more. Sample contributed photos to countless magazines, and he published a number of coffee table books, including Montana on My Mind, Glacier on My Mind, and Montana, the Last, Best Place, published by FalconGuides. The Billings Gazette notes that at the time of his death Sample was working on what he believed to be his final book, a photographic memoir slated to be titled, Montana from the Heart.

In the 1970s, Sample met Bill Schneider, who was then a magazine editor and a former journalism and wildlife biology major from South Dakota State. Sample and Schneider shared a desire to publish, at first, a couple guides to Montana. In early 1980, they published Hiking Montana and Fishing Montana under the Falcon name. It wasn’t clear in those early years whether the fledgling Helena/Billings-based publishing company would succeed, but the duo believed in their vision and continued to produce books, expanding the regions and activities they covered to all 50 states and most outdoor activities, from hiking, paddling, and climbing to cycling, bird-watching, and rockhounding. Over a 30-plus-year period, Falcon built an active list of more than 800 titles.

Although Sample wasn’t always directly involved in the day-to-day running of Falcon over the years, the recognition of his name and his unwavering support and generosity toward the staff were a pillar of the company. 

“As a new, somewhat nervous 22-year-old Falcon editor, I was always heartened to see Mike come down the stairs into the office,” says Erin Turner, now editorial director at TwoDot, Falcon’s sister imprint headquartered in Helena. “Mike was a steadying influence. He made it a point to get to know and stay connected with each person in the office, no matter what their job was.”

Sample served on the board for the Yellowstone Association, and he supported numerous other Montana-based and national organizations, such as the Yellowstone Public Radio and the Nature Conservancy, both privately and through the Sample Foundation.

“It’s too early to estimate the significance of Falcon in the context of Mike’s larger legacy,” said Phelps. “But his enduring contribution to Falcon and outdoor publishing has been indisputable for decades.”

John Spalding is senior marketing manager at FalconGuides.