Cordova Chronicles: Farewell to a good man, Tom Simpler

Tom Simpler was a math teaching legend in Kodiak and helped me get my first teaching job in Alaska there. The 1971 Math Department at Kodiak High, L-R: Harry Mickelson, Tom Simpler, Mickey Nuttall, Dick Shellhorn and Ian Fulp. Kodiak High School Annual photo

Mark Twain is credited with sending a lengthy letter to a colleague that ended with “If I had more time, I would have written less.”

Yet less is not more when bidding farewell to someone as beloved as Tom Simpler, who passed away at age 80 on Jan. 9.

As kids, Tom and his brother Bob lived right up the street from our home in Cordova, and we were lifelong friends. We went through school together, played on the high school basketball team together, and attended the University of Alaska in Fairbanks at overlapping times.

Much was written about Tom’s remarkable life in his obituary, (published in The Cordova Times, Feb. 11, 2022) and I would like to add a few treasured anecdotes.

Tom taught high school mathematics for his entire career in Kodiak, and it was he that helped me get my first math teaching job in Alaska. I had taught math in Hawaii for year, spent two years in the Army, and then finished a master’s degree at UAF while my wife Sue finished her elementary ed degree.

That summer Tom asked if we would be interested in coming to Kodiak. We said yes, and just like that I had a job. When we arrived there in the fall, housing was tight, so Tom and his wife Arlene graciously kicked their two kids Karie and Brett out of their bedroom until we had a place to stay.

One evening Tom and I offered to babysit while Arlene and Sue went out for a while. We were busy watching sports on TV, and the kids were having a field day with just about every toy they owned scattered around the living room.

When the wives came home, they shook their heads at the disarray, and then asked where the kids were. Karie came out of the bedroom, but evidently Brett had gone missing. We started searching, and suddenly the lid on a large guitar case laying on the floor popped open, and there was naked Brett, flat on his back in all his glory, saying excitedly, “Here I am!” Was he ever.

When our housing finally became available, we invited Tom, Arlene, and the kids out to dinner. We chose a small Chinese place downtown, and ended up seated at a long table with the guys on one side and the girls on the other. Their backs just happened to be toward a small stage.

Halfway through our shrimp, chow mien and fried rice, some loud music started, and an excited Brett says to Tom, “Daddy, daddy, look at the naked ladies!” Oh my. Evidently the topless dancers in Kodiak started performing at seven on weekends.

Soon Sue and I ended back in Cordova teaching, but I would see Tom every summer when he came over for seining on the family boat and I was crewing with Olaf Gildnes. Eventually the Simplers upgraded from the 34-foot VECCi to the larger 46-foot Pt. Countess, and for a few years I worked on that craft with a crew that included their dad Charlie, plus Tom and Bob.

The trio had this unique system where they took turns running the boat, which could have created some interesting family dynamics, but in this case never seemed to.

However, Tom told me a story about one time when tensions did flare a bit. He was the skipper of the day, and a tide rip had roared through the seine, creating, shall we say, issues.

Tom was on the flying bridge, trying to sort it all out, when Charlie came up topside, surveyed the situation, and exclaimed, “Why, I have never seen such a mess in all my life!”

Tom, whose first name was actually Charles, had a bit of Charlie in him, and responded, succinctly, with “Yes you have, and you made it!”

Needless to say, the gear was sorted out, as well as who was captain on what day.

Ah, so many other stories and good times.

My good friend Randy Bruce and Tom were buddies during the mid-’50s, and when I contacted him down in 1,000 Palms, California to pass along the unfortunate news, there was a long pause, and finally this short but so meaningful response: “He was a good man.”

Mark Twain could not have put it better.

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Dick Shellhorn is a lifelong Cordovan. He has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 50 years. In his Cordova Chronicles features, he writes about the history and characters of this Alaska town. Alaska Press Club awarded Shellhorn first place for Best Humor column in 2016 and 2020, and third place in 2017 and 2019. He also received second place for Best Editorial Commentary in 2019. Shellhorn has written two books about Alaska adventures: Time and Tide and Balls and Stripes. Reach him at shorn@gci.net.