Journalism professor and UW alum Roger Simpson retires

Roger SimpsonBy Amanda Ma –

Over nearly 50 years, Professor Emeritus Roger Simpson has displayed what one may consider the ultimate in dedication to the University of Washington, both as a student and a teacher. He began his studies in the former School of Communications in 1955, earning his bachelor’s degree in 1959. After some time away, he returned to earn his Ph.D. with the School in 1968. Come 1973, he began his faculty work within these walls and would stay for the remainder of his career. This year, Simpson celebrates the closing of his 39 years as a professor of communication as he takes his retirement.

Simpson has been a fan of journalism since he can remember. From grade school on, he worked on his schools’ newspapers as writer and editor. Once he came to UW, he became editor of The Daily, reporting on political issues, university problems and changes in undergraduate education. During summer breaks, he worked at newspapers around the state.

As an undergraduate, Simpson gained an appreciation for history thanks to Professor Bill Ames’ strong influence. He took this interest all the way to the University of Wisconsin where he earned his master’s degree in journalism. After graduation, he began his career with the The Wall Street Journal in Chicago and Los Angeles where he covered labor, insurance and politics. “Business reporting at The Wall Street Journal is really reporting anything that can affect the economy in any way,” Simpson said.

In 1965, Simpson moved on to work for The Detroit Free Press where he also covered business news, including consumer prices, changes to the downtown area, and the riots of 1967. “We were reporting on the economic effects of the rioting,” he said. “They burned dozens of homes and buildings. Forty-three people died in the riots.” Come November of that year, the two major Detroit newspapers shut down after a Teamsters Union strike, “which meant that we were on the street with no income, right after Thanksgiving.”

Jobless in Detroit, his luck turned when he received a letter from Ames informing him that the UW School of Communications had launched a Ph.D. program, inviting him to apply. Simpson made the trek back to UW where he would stay his entire career.

“I’ve been comfortable enough here to stay here,” Simpson said. He credits faculty who also held great interest in history like Ames, Don Pember and Henry Ladd Smith for keeping him at UW. “Then as time moved on, having Jerry Baldasty and Richard Kielbowicz joining as professors, very strong colleagues in history, in that sense it was a very comfortable place to work.”

What Simpson calls the “Washington style” also kept him in place. Throughout the years, Simpson said, the School and later the Department have been gracious in providing all faculty members the freedom to explore new areas of study. “You’re not locked into teaching the same courses over and over again, and you’re not locked into thinking the same way about things all the time,” he said. “There’s a certain degree of freedom, maybe a little more than in some schools, to pursue interests that excite you.” This freedom contributed to Simpson’s accomplishments over the years.

In 1978, his master’s thesis was expanded into a published book, Unionism or Hearst: The Seattle Post-Intelligencer Strike of 1936, which Ames co-authored. From there, he became more interested in ethics, “by accident,” he said. After taking a year off in 1984, traveling to the East Coast visiting other journalism schools, he said he realized that “everyone else in the country was doing ethics but we weren’t.” He came back to UW and said to the faculty that ethics really should be in the curriculum, “and they said, ‘Why don’t you design a course?’ I wasn’t a scholar in ethics, but I thought it should be done. Our students should be thinking about the morality of the work they do.” Today, ethics is a requirement in the journalism curriculum.

Come 1984, when fear of AIDS ran rampant, Simpson joined with the Seattle Red Cross and the Northwest Aids Foundation to try to bring calm by educating youth on what AIDS really is. “The high schools in the city and suburbs were so frightened of the subject because many of those infected were gay. They didn’t know what to do, or how to talk about it,” he said. With the partnership he helped found, a workshop for high school newspaper editors was created. The students would attend workshops at which they were brought face to face with people diagnosed with AIDS, and the doctors who treat the disease. Students would take information they learned back to their schools to educate their peers, writing editorials in their high school newspapers.

“There was a lot of misinformation in the media. We just bridged that period until the school systems finally got the courage to start talking about AIDS in the classroom,” Simpson said. “I’m really proud of that activity, and I could do it because nobody here was going to stop me. Teachers were so grateful that somebody provided them information.”

Later on, Simpson was able to devote some time to studying Seattle’s gay history, catalyzed by a friend’s “treasure trove” of items related to a business called the Garden of Allah, a gay cabaret that opened in 1946 near the present location of the Seattle Art Museum. Simpson approached Columbia University Press about the rich history of what is known to be one of the first gay-owned nightclubs in the country. The resulting book, An Evening at the Garden of Allah,” has been in print since 1996.

In his research, which entailed going through city government records from that time period, Simpson learned a lot about a time when “the Seattle police essentially protected so-called vice activities but forced the businesses to pay money to the police department,” he said. “It was another adventure that wasn’t in the curriculum.”

In 1994, Simpson took on a new interest in trauma and journalism, which led to work that he says he is most proud of in his career. “Roger was a pioneer in thinking about trauma that journalists encounter when they cover traumatic situations,” said Department Chair David Domke. After much research on the topic, Simpson created course activities about trauma in journalism, which included a teaching module for the Advanced Reporting course that exposes students to a simulated traumatic situation.

Facing actors in the classroom, students are forced to make sense of emotions expressed by actors, who are trained to respond spontaneously to their questions, demeanor and body language. The exercise takes place at the scene of an apartment fire. “If somebody is in your face screaming at you, you suddenly have emotions and you have to deal with the other person’s emotions,” Simpson said, “so the real meaning of the exercise is not teaching about trauma so much as getting it realized that emotions are part of doing journalism work.”

“Roger has been a national leader in getting people to recognize the impact on journalists,” Domke said. “That’s how the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma got created and located here.” In 1999, Simpson took on the role of leadership for the Dart Center, which quickly became an international operation. “We had offices in London, Australia, and did training throughout Europe into South Asia. Across the country we were doing training programs at journalism conventions and conferences,” Simpson said. For the next six years, Simpson would be entrenched in that work, working with a budget of $1.4 million by the end of 2006. The Dart Center is now based at Columbia University.

With so many accomplishments behind him, Simpson is looking forward to having more time for himself and Jeffrey Cantrell, his partner of 24 years – but will come back to teach ethics in spring 2013. “I just love teaching the ethics course,” he said. “It’s great fun.”

In the meantime, he said, he will still miss the daily trappings of being a professor in the Department of Communication; the students dropping by, the interesting conversations with faculty and staff. “I will miss that, and the neat people around here.”

His leave comes amid much congratulations and happy reflection from colleagues and former students.

Lauren Kessler, director of the multimedia journalism master’s program at the University of Oregon, and one of Simpson’s “favorite Ph.D. students” had this to say about him: “Roger combines two qualities not often seen together: compassion and rigor.  As my major professor and mentor during my doctoral studies, he set the bar high; he challenged me – but he also respected and embraced not just what I was interested in but who I was. It was the combination that made him such an important person in my life and such an important element in my success in the program.”

Congratulations, Roger! See you around in the spring!