Pete Simpson isn’t slowing down just yet.
He’ll be 93 this year, but he still shows up at the Cody Recreation Center at least four times a week for a good workout.
“Somebody asked me, ‘Are you up here bodybuilding?’” Simpson said. “I said, ‘No, I'm up here fighting off the Grim Reaper.’”
All too often, Pete’s career has been overshadowed by the public profile of his famous brother, retired U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyoming. But Pete’s had an equally rich and rewarding career in academia, politics and the arts.
A U.S. Navy veteran, gubernatorial candidate, Screen Actors Guild card holder, vice president at the University of Wyoming and executive director of the UW Foundation, as well as charismatic public personality, Pete Simpson has had a colorful career and personal life that’s pure Wyoming.
Charting His Future
Simpson graduated from Cody High School in 1948. He chose to attend the University of Wyoming, but without a clear direction for his future.
“I went there on a basketball scholarship, if you can believe it,” Simpson joked, as both he and his brother towered over most of their classmates. “Everybody my age who liked sports, and particularly liked basketball, wanted to play at the university, because the University team had won the national championship in 1943. So this was a big deal.”
Because he enjoyed his history classes at UW, Simpson decided to major in that field, although he also enjoyed being part of the university’s theater program. In fact, because of his appearance in several plays at UW, Simpson was offered an opportunity to receive his Screen Actors Guild (SAG) card, placing him in an elite club of working professional actors.
“A subsidiary of Paramount Studios was going around the country, and they were actually at low expense filming some winning college plays and broadcasting them – selling them to either local or regional, or even a national cable or a national network,” Simpson said. “Out of that, I'll be darned if I didn't get a screen test by Paramount, and I think it's still in a can somewhere.”
Simpson eventually graduated in 1953 with a degree in history, intending to teach the subject.
But his future as a history teacher would be put on hold.
“Right out of the university, I went into the Navy,” Simpson said. “I was a bombardier navigator in a heavy attack squadron based on the old straight deck carrier, the USS Lake Champlain. So I had quite a few hours logged in that posture in the Navy for four and a half years.”
Swimming Pool Salesman And Aspiring Actor
When Simpson left the Navy in 1958, some friends approached him about a novel business opportunity in Cody.
“We got into, of all things, the swimming pool business,” he said. “We sold Esther Williams swimming pools, and we invited her to come to town – and she did.”
The visit by the famous movie star and competitive swimmer is among one of Simpson’s fondest memories.
“She had a little time between toxic marriages, and she had some children that she thought would enjoy the Western life,” he said. “So she came for almost two and a half weeks, and it's an exciting story for yours truly.”
The Love Of His Life
Simpson couldn’t have known growing up that the love of his life was right next door all along.
Lynne Livingston was nine years Pete’s junior, growing up just less than a block away from the Simpson family home. It was 1959 when the young woman, now an East Coast actress, came home for a visit.
“(I was in) a show called ‘George Washington Slept Here,’ and Lynne was just home from New York City, where she was in the American Theatre Wing,” he recalled. “And I thought, ‘Who is that?’ I lived about a block away from her, but suddenly, she was no longer a little girl in pigtails.”
The two shared a mutual love for theater and the arts, and within days they each knew that the other was “the one.” After a whirlwind 13-day courtship, they became engaged and were married in 1960.
The couple settled in a basement apartment in Billings, Montana, but Simpson said his bride wasn’t thrilled with the swimming pool business.
“She said, ‘Are we going to do this forever?’” Simpson said. “And she put on the breakfast table an application to the University of Wyoming graduate school.”
After earning a master’s degree in history, Simpson landed a job that paid $5,000 a year at Eastern Oregon College (now Eastern Oregon University).
With their newborn son, Milward, in tow, the little family spent the next three years in La Grande, Oregon, with Pete teaching history and Lynne acting in local theater productions.
Simpson decided to further his own education at the University of Oregon, earning his doctorate degree. Shortly after graduation, he was offered a position back home in Wyoming as assistant to the president of Casper College.
“There were some political reasons as well, because they were trying to establish a four-year degree in Casper,” said Simpson. “I was the first coordinator and developer of that upper division in Casper, the first time that the University extended four-year opportunities across the state.
“And so I taught history and also was involved in some lobbying at the state Legislature.”
But as busy as he was, Simpson made time to work with his wife in a grant-funded production of “Oliver!” at the local children’s home.
“Those children, 100% of them got involved in that show,” said Simpson. “Some of them as pickpockets, some of them as ushers and some of them could really sing. We got a lot of good publicity, and I played Fagan.”
In the early 1980s, Simpson moved his family to Sheridan, where he held a position as a dean, then in 1984 became vice president for development at the University of Wyoming.
“I was vice president for what they came to call Institutional Advancement, which at the time encompassed alumni relations, the University Relations and development, which was the fundraising arm,” Simpson said. “And I was executive director of the UW Foundation.”
After his retirement in 1997, Pete and Lynne stayed in Laramie, where Pete was an adjunct professor of history.
In 1999 and 2000 Pete was honored as the university's Milward Simpson Distinguished Visiting Professor, which was named in honor of his father.
In 1980, Simpson decided to make his own foray into state politics. He ran for, and was elected to, the Wyoming House of Representatives out of Sheridan County.
“I loved the politics of serving in the Legislature,” said Simpson. “In the days that I was serving, you couldn't afford not to walk across the aisle and work with others in the Legislature. We were all part of the state — and it was like neighbors who can't ignore each other. You can't freeze each other out.”
Following his two terms in Cheyenne, Simpson took two years off from politics before campaigning for governor in an unsuccessful bid against Democrat Mike Sullivan in 1986.
“That was a great adventure, even with a loss,” Simpson said. “There was not a loss in the process, actually, because the number of people that I got acquainted with, the vast experience of Wyoming, was a part of that campaign.”
The election was by no means a landslide. Sullivan received 54% of the vote to Simpson’s 46%.
“I was defeated by a fraternity brother,” he said. “I think the worst worst we ever said of each other was, ‘He's too nice a guy.’”
The Simpsons’ three children also are very accomplished.
Their oldest, Milward, holds a Bachelor of Arts in Music Performance from the University of Wyoming and a Master of Humanities from the University of Colorado at Denver. He has held positions as manager of the Wyoming Arts Council, served 10 years as director of the Wyoming Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources and was state director for The Nature Conservancy.
“(Milward) is one of the best administrators I’ve ever known, and I’ve been in administration,” Simpson said. “All of (our children) have enjoyed music, art and performance, and in Pete's case, he makes a living at that.”
Pete Jr. has devoted his life to performance and enjoys a successful career as a New York City-based actor. He also is a dancer and choreographer, and is an Obie Award-winning performer for his work in off-Broadway productions.
Notably, Pete Jr. has performed the role of the Blue Man in the famous Blue Man Group more than 4,000 times in four countries.
The Simpsons’ daughter, Margaret (Maggie), is a performer as well, although perhaps not as well-known as her brother — not in Wyoming, anyway.
“She has performed at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland and up and down the Front Range (of Colorado), and in Nashville,” said Simpson. “She has some seven CDs to her credit. Maggie is maybe our most gifted in terms of music and artistry.”
Wyoming is ‘Soul Country’
A few years ago, Pete and Lynne returned to Cody, moving back into the Simpson family home.
“I love this old house that we lived in, that Al and I were born in,” he said.
Simpson has a deep love for his home state and spoke eloquently about the hold Wyoming can have on a person.
“It is ‘soul country,’” he said. “It is where your soul is refurbished. And all of the memories that you have to relate to — being a child, being a young person, being an adult — all of them are sort of rooted in the land, as well as the mountains and the country.
“There's an expansiveness to it, a chance to feel a sense of freedom, as well as to think in independent ways.”
Simpson recalled an upper division course that he taught at the University of Wyoming titled “Wyoming’s Political Identity,” in which his students would discuss what makes the state so unique.
“Why is it that when somebody crosses an invisible line, they suddenly feel fresher air, a better outlook?” he said. “It's a rectangle on a map, but there is an ethos to the space. You have to stand up against the wind, you have to survive — not like pioneers, but in a sense, less of things, and more of the country.
“There’s an old story of a dude who came to Cheyenne, and there was a cowpoke leaning on a rail there. And the dude says, ‘You people have more cattle out here, than you have people. Why is that?’ And the cowboy said, ‘We prefer them.’”
Life At 93
Simpson will be 93 in July, and said he hopes to see the century mark before his adventures are over.
“It would be grand if I could live to be 100, which my grandmother did,” he said. “If only to be able to say what George Burns said when he reached 100 when they asked him, ‘Is there any advantage to being 100?’ And he said, ‘Yes — no peer pressure.’”
He said that every day he’s grateful for the life he’s been allowed to live.
“I wake up every day being grateful for my wife, this beautiful woman,” he said, “for the life we've had, for the good fortune that we've enjoyed and for being in Wyoming.”