Richard W. Sampson was born in Newton, Massachusetts, to Winsor and Pauline Sampson. He attended Bowdoin College and graduated as a math major. After graduation, he studied meteorology at MIT and the University of Illinois and got a commission in the Air Force as a meteorologist. In 1952, he got a job teaching mathematics at Bates College. He married Jean Sampson, the founder of the Catalyst Organization, a group that seeks to expand opportunities for women in business, education and other fields. She was also active in the Maine Civil Liberties Union (MCLU) and other social and political action groups. Because of those connections, Richard and Jean Sampson became close personally to Edmund S. Muskie, Frank Coffin and other major Maine political players.
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Gethin-Jones, Meredith and Burnham-Bestor, Marisa, "Sampson, Richard oral history interview" (1990). Edmund S. Muskie Oral History Collection. 347.