Rick Simpson is no stranger to the spark ignited within a student by a teacher’s words, actions — even silences.
Fifty years ago this September, Simpson sat in a high school English class in Northern California and watched as one of the three most influential teachers of his life, Robert Leon, silently held up the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle. Emblazoned there was the now-famous image of a young black girl walking through a double column of white people as Little Rock Central High School became integrated.
“That’s one of the most powerful things anybody has ever done in my life,” Simpson says, adding that while he doesn’t know what kind of influence he has on his students, he surely knows “what kind of influence teachers have had on me.”
Those teachers are a constant presence in his mind, with him whenever he walks into a classroom, which he has been doing for nearly 40 years at St. Bonaventure.
A native of Seattle who grew up near San Francisco (a city named after St. Francis, he’ll tell you), Simpson earned undergraduate and master’s degrees in English from Brigham Young University and a doctorate in English from Kent State University. He arrived at St. Bonaventure mere weeks after leaving Kent State in 1970. In the next five years his two children were born in Olean. Dozens of Bona students in his classes became hundreds, eventually thousands. He and his wife, Deb, have lived at 407 Genesee in Olean since 1974. And so the area long since for Simpson began to feel like a very real home.
A professor of English, he teaches literature, poetry and writing, has taught jazz improvisation and the history of jazz for the University’s visual and performing arts program, and is a well-known regional jazz musician.
A TEACHER’S PASSION
In May of this year, the University recognized Simpson as one of four outstanding faculty members, presenting him with the Award for Professional Excellence in Teaching. He says it is a wonderful thing to be honored, but one senses that the true gift of the award was the opportunity it presented for Simpson to “reconnect with students and to think about what I’m trying to do in the classroom, short term and long term.
“From one angle, I guess I’m a jazz player about all of this,” Simpson says. “I play the solo, I walk off the stand, and I go home … and if something happened in the moment, then that moment will remain important.”
For countless students through the years, many of those moments have remained exactly that — important. Ask his present and former students what they have discovered in a Rick Simpson class and you’ll hear words like “sheer joy,” “beauty,” and “passion.”
New York Times national columnist Dan Barry, a 1980 graduate and former student of Simpson, says that “every time I sit down to write a story … I hear Dr. Simpson’s voice, whispering to me still about structure, and voice, and the use of words as musical notes.”
According to Barry, what distinguishes Simpson is his “passion for The Word and its meaning, its sound, its etymology.”
Lynne Sherwin, class of 1990 and deputy features editor with the Akron Beacon Journal, says the world needs more people “like Doc Simpson, who remind us how emotional and versatile and beautiful language can be.”
A REACH FAR BEYOND THE CLASSROOM
Simpson challenges his students to recognize the artistic strategy that goes into great writing, and is tireless in helping them strengthen their own voice on the page. When his schedule isn’t filled with class lectures, it is brimming with student appointments. His written critiques have become legendary, often longer than the papers he is grading and always filled with detailed and encouraging comments.
Keeping in touch with students years after they have moved beyond Bonaventure’s borders is also the norm for Simpson. At any given time, he is in direct contact with approximately 100 former students. Many of these contacts are professional working relationships that “matter very much and are an important part of my professional life,” he says.
One example is his role as contributing editor of NEO, a bilingual American-Portuguese literary journal edited at the University of the Azores in Portugal by John Starkey, class of 1989. “This is a beautifully produced journal,” he says, praising Starkey as being “an absolute dead-eye editor.” Heading into its fifth year, his collaboration with Starkey is the embodiment of the ongoing relationship he has with students and former students.
A special pleasure for Simpson was his translation published in NEO last spring of a Norwegian short story by Bjarte Breiteig, one of Norway’s foremost young fiction writers. Simpson spent his senior year of high school there, but this is his first published translation from Norwegian, and he is particularly happy the story was in NEO.
A CRAFTSMAN’S PRECISION
Simpson might well be a man inseparable from his music and his relentless pursuit of nature’s note within the human experience. He sees art as an element in a loving relationship with the external world, and he believes what matters most are simple, elemental human realities.
He’s been playing tenor saxophone since the age of nine (to his brother’s trumpet and then bass), gigs since the age of 12, and is continually commissioned for readings of his own and others’ poetry as well as musical performances.
“It all begins and proceeds and ends with love,” Simpson says. “I think that’s what St. Francis was about, I think that’s what jazz at its best is about, and I think certainly that one of the greatest functions of art is to lead people to love and beauty.”
For him, an exquisite part of the Franciscan tradition is its appreciation for the beauty in the natural world. Indeed, he will tell you — dramatically — it has been his pleasure to “know the Catholic faith with greater depth, teaching here. I am glad to have encouragement from the tradition behind this University, leading me to think about love and beauty … to honor others and to serve others, and to be an agent of good will and even peace in a world filled with conflict,” he says.
“That’s why we have loyal alumni here. I think those ideas reach people, I think they move people and I think people come back to get reenergized by those ideas because we need them — we’re lost without them.
“I’m grateful to St. Bonaventure as an institution, for what it’s made possible in my life and for what it’s made real for me. I think of myself as very, very, very fortunate to have had the opportunity to teach on this faculty.”
Learn more about the literary magazine NEO
Enjoy Dr. Simpson's translation of a Norwegian short story by Bjarte Breiteig