Having Hassell Simpson for English literature during the first semester of my freshman year at Hampden-Sydney was a shock to my system.
Dr. Simpson's grandfatherly appearance and easygoing attitude hid a standard of academic excellence that reared its head when he returned my first essay. I was crushed. My grade was so low that I have effectively stricken it from my memory.
Despite my early struggles, or possibly because of them, Dr. Simpson and I developed a pleasant student-professor friendship that was the reality of my collegiate expectations. He was the knowledgeable lover of literature whose office was lined with beer bottles. He drove a convertible Mustang and told slightly off-color jokes in class. He was the affable college professor I had expected them all to be.
When I returned to Hampden-Sydney some years ago, I was happy to see Dr. Simpson and to rekindle our friendship. He was still very active on campus, acting in plays, singing with the Glee Club, and writing his book Hampden-Sydney Stage: Theatre at the College (1786-2002). We spent many lunches together and enjoyed many more conversations about the community, his family, and getting older. We never talked about literature; I couldn't hold up my side of the conversation.
To most members of more recent classes, Dr. Simpson was a glimmer of the College's history, much as Francis the Ax Man was for me when I was a student. Though Hassell enjoyed his membership in the UPLS and acted in plays for as long as he could, most students likely recognized him only as the elderly man seen running in the afternoon. Until his health prevented it, he enjoyed his daily jog, followed by cooling down with a beer and a cigarette with students at the Tiger Inn. Grace Simpson still walks regularly with friends, but, to my knowledge, foregoes her husband's post-exercise routine.
Hassell and Grace moved to Hampden-Sydney in 1962 right after he earned his Ph.D. from Florida State. They raised a family here and immersed themselves in the lives of their neighbors and the students, and their love of literature and art sets a lofty standard for the rest of us. He worked tirelessly for excellence among his students in the classroom and for the rights of faculty outside the classroom. It is the commitment like theirs to this place that makes Hampden-Sydney College the special place we all love so much.
Thanks for the good times, old friend.