Pamela Hemenway Simpson, 1946-2011
Pamela Hemenway Simpson, an art historian who was one of the most influential figures of the last four decades at Washington and Lee University, died at her home in Lexington, Va., on Oct. 4. She was 65.
“She was a dear friend and colleague,” said W&L President Kenneth P. Ruscio. “Washington and Lee is a different place and a much better place because of her. And Lexington and Rockbridge County are better places, too.”
During her 38 years on the faculty at W&L, Simpson made myriad contributions, both in the classroom, where she was “the embodiment of W&L’s teacher-scholar” model, as Ruscio described her, and in countless other formal and informal positions.
Simpson was the first female tenure-track professor at W&L and the first female professor to receive an endowed chair, when she became the inaugural Ernest Williams II Professor of Art History in 1993. Not only did she pave the way for women faculty at W&L, mentoring them and serving as a role model, but she also played a critical role in the University’s transition to coeducation in the mid-1980s. From 1984 to 1986, she chaired the Co-Education Steering Committee, which implemented the University’s decision to admit women; the W&L community credited her leadership with the smooth transition.
Simpson discussed her pioneering role in a 1981 article in the Roanoke (Va.) Times & World-News announcing her appointment as assistant dean of the College at W&L. She recalled a student who came to her at the end of a semester to say that he had enjoyed her course. “Then he said, ‘I didn’t think I could learn from a woman, but I did,’ ” Simpson related.
Born on Sept. 8, 1946, in Omaha, Neb., to Dr. Myrle E. and Leone Hemenway, she earned a B.A. in art from Gettysburg College in 1968; an M.A. in art history from the University of Missouri in 1970; and a Ph.D. in art history from the University of Delaware in 1974.
Simpson spent her entire teaching career at Washington and Lee, except for a 1973 stint as an instructor of art history at the Penn State Extension Campus in Media, Pa. She arrived at W&L in 1973 as an instructor, becoming assistant professor in 1974, associate professor in 1979 and full professor in 1985.
Simpson taught courses in American art and architecture, English art and architecture, modern European art and architecture, women artists, African-American art and vernacular architecture.
Even after being diagnosed with cancer this summer, she had begun this fall term by team-teaching three courses, explaining that “as long as I’m sitting, I can talk all day long.” That attitude, Ruscio noted, was typical. “Pam was once again exemplifying strength of courage, character and humanity,” he said.
Simpson received recognition for her effectiveness in the classroom with several major awards, including the Outstanding Faculty Award from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) in 1995, and the Award for Excellence in Teaching from the Southeastern College Art Conference (SECAC) in 2010.
In addition to her teaching, Simpson served as head of the Department of Art and Art History on two occasions, and as assistant and then associate dean of the College from 1981 through 1986.
Simpson wrote three books. Cheap, Quick and Easy: Imitative Architectural Materials, 1870-1930 was published in 1999 and won several awards, and The Architecture of Historic Lexington, co-authored with the late Royster Lyle Jr., came out in 1979. Her most recent book, Icons of Abundance: The History of Corn Palaces and Butter Sculpture, will be published by the University of Minnesota Press.
She also co-edited (with Cindy Mills) the book Monuments to the Lost Cause: Women, Art and the Landscapes of Southern Memory (2004). In addition, she authored numerous exhibition catalogues, articles in both the academic and popular press, and book reviews.
A popular speaker at academic conferences, she was equally in demand by lay audiences and W&L alumni chapters. She gave many talks on the architecture of Lexington and Washington and Lee to groups in Lexington and Rockbridge County.
As an art and architectural historian, Simpson served as president of the Vernacular Architecture Forum, president of the Southeast Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians and board member of the Society of Architectural Historians. She was active with the Southeastern College Art Conference (SECAC), participating in every annual meeting since 1976 and serving as president and as editor of the organization’s peer-reviewed journal, the Southeastern College Art Review, from 1979 to 1992.
As a member of the community, Simpson held leadership posts in, and volunteered for, the local chapter of the National Organization for Women, Project Horizon, the Historic Lexington Foundation, the Rockbridge Historical Society, the Rockbridge Area Coalition against Sexual Assault, the Rockbridge Regional Library and the R.E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church.
In September, the University announced the establishment of the Pamela H. Simpson Professorship. It will be held by a member of the undergraduate faculty who, like Simpson, exemplifies the highest standards of teaching, scholarship and service.
On Sept. 7, Simpson gave W&L’s traditional Fall Convocation address to first-year students, seniors and the campus community. She titled her talk “Reflections on White Columns.” It was originally scheduled to be held outdoors between Lee Chapel and the Colonnade, where the audience would have been able to observe the actual buildings that she described. But rainy weather forced the event inside the Warner Center, where she transformed the vast gymnasium into an intimate classroom by using slides to illustrate her address.
She began by noting that “among art historians, a standard professional joke is that we tend to ‘work in the dark.’ It is true; we usually talk about our subjects with slides in a darkened room.”
Simpson then discussed the way W&L’s historic campus had developed over the decades, concluding that the distinguished buildings were a symbol. “This is who we are,” she said. “When we think of our most deeply held values — academic excellence, collegiality, civility and, most of all, honor, all of them are embodied here.”
Simpson is survived by her husband, Henry H. Simpson; her son, Peter Simpson, and his wife, Laura; her grandson, Henry Simpson, 6, and granddaughter, Helen Simpson, 4, all of Lexington; her brother, Robert Hemenway, of Lawrence, Kan.; and her father, Dr. Myrle E. Hemenway, also of Lawrence, Kan.
Simpson’s memorial service will be on Monday, Oct. 10, at 4 p.m. at the R.E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church, followed by a reception at W&L’s Evans Hall.
The family has requested that those wishing to make memorial donations direct them to the Rockbridge Valley Chapter of the National Organization for Women (P.O. Box 1848, Merrifield, VA 22116-1848); Project Horizon (120 Varner Lane, Lexington, VA 24450); the Historic Lexington Foundation (22 W. Washington St., Lexington, VA 24450); the Rockbridge Area Free Clinic (25 Northridge Lane, Suite 3, Lexington, VA 24450); and the Rockbridge Historical Society (101 W. Washington St., Lexington, VA 24450).
Jeffery G. Hanna
Executive Director of Communications and Public Affairs