Dan Simson

Dan Simpson: Post-Gazette columnist and U.S. ambassador to African countries
July 9, 1939 – June 6, 2022

As Dan Simpson passed 3½ decades of a distinguished career in the U.S. State Department, his wife, Libby, would sometimes ask him what else he would like to do with his life. The only thing besides diplomatic work that really interested him, he would say, was journalism.
“We both laughed at that,” she said, “because there was no way that a guy who was already in his 60s was going to find a job in journalism never having been a journalist.”
Lo and behold, while he was posted in Bosnia, they saw an ad in the International Herald Tribune for a Midwestern newspaper looking for a foreign affairs specialist.
Mr. Simpson applied, interviewed and got the job. While the job was originally intended as an editorial writer for the Toledo Blade, he ended up going to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette instead (both newspapers are owned by Block Communications).
Mr. Simpson, an ambassador to multiple African countries, Post-Gazette columnist and longtime member of the editorial board, died Monday in Bethesda, Md. He was 82.
“He was one of the most incredible people we’ve ever had at the Post-Gazette,” publisher John Robinson Block said. “It’s a big loss for Pittsburgh, and it’s also a loss for anyone who was interested in foreign affairs.”
Mr. Simpson was born in Bellaire, Ohio, the grandson of a steelworker who died in the mills when his father was just 11. His father was in international sales for an enamelware company, which ignited a lifelong interest for Mr. Simpson in collecting international stamps.
Mr. Simpson excelled in the Bellaire public schools and earned a full scholarship to Yale University. After he graduated in 1961, he joined a program called Yale in Africa to teach in a boys school in Benin City, Nigeria.
He lived in a house with no electricity and no running water and loved the experience there, just after Nigeria gained independence from Great Britain. He decided to join the U.S. Foreign Service, and came back to the United States in 1963 to take the State Department exams.
He was able to take the written exam but had to wait nearly a year to take the oral exam. In the meantime, he saw an ad for a job teaching English in Libya. He arrived in Benghazi at the Libyan Army Military College, where his brightest student was a young officer named Moammar Gadhafi. “Dan always said that he was really smart,” Mrs. Simpson said of the future Libyan dictator. “Whenever he asked a question, he had his hand up.”
Mr. Simpson had his first Foreign Service posting in 1966 in Burundi, where his oldest child was born. He went back and forth between the U.S. and postings in foreign countries such as Bulgaria and South Africa, where he became friends with author Nadine Gordimer and served as a liaison to members of the African National Congress organizing against apartheid.
In 1989, he was named ambassador to the Central African Republic. During that time, he was passing through Paris when he met Mrs. Simpson, who at the time was a wine expert and hot air balloon pilot in France. They married in the Central African Republic and then moved to Zaire, where he served two postings and developed a relationship with then-president Mobutu Sese Seko and was named ambassador there in 1995.
During his ambassadorship, which ended in 1998, Mobutu was toppled by rebel forces and Mrs. Simpson recalls her husband calling the rebels to come to their house in Kinshasa after they took power and urging against further bloodshed.
Shortly after 18 Americans and hundreds of Somalis were killed in the Black Hawk Down incident in 1993, Mr. Simpson was sent to Somalia as a special envoy. The posting was too dangerous for Mrs. Simpson to accompany him, and soon became too dangerous for Mr. Simpson or any other official American presence. In September of 1994, Mr. Simpson left as the last diplomat in Mogadishu, lowering the U.S. flag and closing the U.S. embassy there.
Mr. Simpson held leadership positions at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., and the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. and earned a master’s degree in African studies from Northwestern University.
“That was the period of freedom for Africans and for independence, from a colonial nation to a free country,” Mrs. Simpson said. “He loved watching them get their independence and seeing what they did with it.”
He moved to Pittsburgh in 2001 and started at the Post-Gazette on Sept. 10. The very next day, he was thrust into September 11 coverage, writing the editorial that would run in the extra edition of the Post-Gazette.
Mr. Simpson’s biggest hobby and passion was international affairs, said his wife, and he read five newspapers with breakfast every morning. He walked to the Post-Gazette offices in Downtown and on the North Shore every day from their apartment in Uptown, and by the time he got to the Post-Gazette offices he’d often have one editorial or column written in his head. Then, during the course of the day, he would write more.
“This was not a take-it-easy job for him,” Mr. Block said. “He literally outproduced everyone else.”
Even when Mr. Simpson would take vacations — often to off-the-beaten-path countries such as Syria or Libya, recalled Mr. Block — he would send in editorials nearly every day.
“I don’t think there was a faster writer of editorials than Dan Simpson, especially when it came to complex foreign policy topics,” said his Post-Gazette colleague Tony Norman. “He could knock out several editorials a day because he understood the background already, whether it was Hungary or the Balkans or a country in Central Africa.”
Despite rubbing elbows with the rich and powerful, Mr. Simpson was not the slightest bit snooty himself, said Mr. Norman. “He had very good tastes and appreciated the finer things in life, but he didn’t have a pretentious bone in his body,” he said, remembering that Mr. Simpson would regularly invite him and other colleagues to lunch at the Duquesne Club to “see how the other half ate.”
Mr. Norman was endlessly entertained by Mr. Simpson’s stories of his brushes with fame and history. “He was like Forrest Gump in a way,” he said. “He always had some connection, no matter how slight, to some conflict going on in the world.”
Philosophically, Mr. Simpson often advocated for a progressive viewpoint, both at home and abroad. “Dan was a staunch believer in liberal democracy and, as a columnist and editorial writer, supported candidates and espoused views that advanced progressive thinking,” said Tom Waseleski, editorial page editor from 2003 to 2016.
Mr. Simpson retired from the editorial board in 2018 but continued to write his column until last year, when it became too difficult following a stroke. His health suffered because of the stroke and also because of heart problems, which led to his death, said his wife.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Simpson is survived by four children — Andrew, of Boulder, Colo.; Mark, of San Diego; Michael, of Annapolis, Md.; and Holly, of Washington D.C. — and seven grandchildren. The family will hold a Zoom funeral service at a later date.
Anya Sostek: asostek@post-gazette.com.