In memoriam: Scott Simpkins

Scott Simpkins, 1958-2010

One of my former professors, a great but humble man named Scott Simpkins, died this morning, in his home in Denton. I don’t know any more about his death except that he’d been in poor health for some time, and that he will be dearly, dearly missed.

One of the great joys of academic life is meeting people who excite you intellectually. Scott Simpkins was more than that: He was excited by the intellect of others, which, in academia, can sometimes seem like a rare thing. We get so caught up in our own work, in what we are arguing or who is reading us or how quickly we’re advancing through the ranks, that we forget that the work of others is our work. But Scott Simpkins seemed always aware of that symbiotic truth, and he loved it. I knew him only briefly and mostly through the classroom — he taught my critical theory course and my course in Gothic literature, both with as much humor and enthusiasm as brilliance and insight — but I never saw the man in or out of the classroom, never passed him in the hall or stopped by his open office door just to say hi, without encountering a smile and smiling in return, and I never stopped for a chat without learning something or — more important, perhaps — unlearning something. He was excited by the ideas of others and so he excited new ideas in me. He did that to everyone: He lit us up.

It is through us, I like to think, that Scott is still alight himself. Within minutes of news breaking within the department, Scott’s colleagues and former students began posting memorials in their Facebook statuses and on Scott’s Facebook wall. In everyone’s digital voice, there are notes of both sorrow and gratitude, comments of loss and regret as well as the sincerest thanks for all Scott taught us, his former students, his friends, his colleagues.

Of course, Scott might challenge my reading of that. He might challenge my reading of all this — he made a living out of challenging assumptions. We’re talking about a man who wore t-shirts, cargo shorts and sandals to teach every day partly just because professors aren’t “supposed” to dress like that. In his Facebook photo albums, he included a picture of himself jumping up and down on a black suit and tie he’d just cut from his own body, an act of what he describes as “performance art” to teach composition. He was Descartes’s evil genius if ever there was one, and he just loved upending assumptions.

But there is no upending this: He is loved by all who knew him, and we all are better off because of him.

He was also one of the coolest people I ever knew. The guy was into everything, and while he would never have claimed to know everything about everything, he definitely knew a little bit about everything and a whole hell of a lot about most things. But he never let his intellect get in the way of a good time. While some of his students and his colleagues were hunched over yellow legal pads in the library or typing up essays in their dark rooms, trying so desperately to “get ahead,” Scott was enjoying a beer with students or hiking in Palo Duro Canyon out west or cycling across town or just kicking back with a book. And he still thought circles around most people, still had a hell of an impressive publication record, still enjoyed the respect of his colleagues. And he had fun doing it.  His faculty profile photo at UNT shows him wearing a backpack in the hills; his personal website begins with a quote from Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. This is a man who knew how to make academia fun, how to make academia cool.

Sometimes I feel like we only get a few of those in our lives. I value and revere all the teachers I’ve ever had, even the ones I sometimes disagreed with, but I can name maybe one or two professors from each stage of my career — middle school, high school, grad school, my doctoral work — who’ve had a deep and lasting impact on my approach to academia and to my work both as a writer and a teacher. Scott Simpkins easily ranks among them (and it’s no accident, I think, that he was the most-requested “second reader” on creative writing theses and dissertations at UNT — he had this kind of impact on everyone).

So here’s to Scott Simpkins. The world is a lesser place today, but only a little and not for long, because we who love you will always remember you.

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

20 thoughts on “In memoriam: Scott Simpkins

  1. He was my professor for British Literature for this semester. He had been sick the last 2 weeks and out of class but he came in briefly a week ago to collect our essays. He did not look well and he told us that we should all get a flu shot. We were sitting in his class this morning and waiting for him to come in because there was no cancellation sheet on the door, and instead the head of the English dept came in and delivered the sad news.
    I only knew Dr. Simpkins for a short time..and was only able to be around him for 4 class periods before he got sick..but I already knew he was quickly becoming my favorite. He was so naturally funny and made dry material so very interesting by comparing it to pop culture and his favorite movie “Evil Dead: 2”. I am very sad that I don’t get to have more time with him. But he was a really great guy and I’m glad I got even a little bit of time with him.

  2. Sam – you do not know how much this makes the entire Simpkins family feel. This is such a wonderful memoriam to see. On behalf of my grieving Mother and father and Scott’s other younger brother Craig , we thank you for the kind words in this tragic , tragic loss of a family member.

    James Simpkins

    1. James, I’m so, so sorry for the grief your family is feeling right now. And thank you so much for these kind words in such a difficult time. I think you’d like to know that I looked at my statistics for this blog today, and Scott is now the most popular subject I’ve ever posted about. More people have come here looking for Scott than for any other post I’ve ever written. And they’re still coming. That’s how many people miss him; that’s how loved he is.

      I’m so happy I got to know Scott even briefly. And I look forward to sharing what I learned from him with my own students, so they can share it with others, and so on, forever. And I know so many of my former classmates and colleagues who are already saying they do the same. In this way, Scott will always be with us.

      1. “But he never let his intellect get in the way of a good time. ”


        My name is Mark Andersen. Scott and I were very tight friends during our late high school/early college years here in Wisconsin. I am from Kenosha, where Scott lived.
        I have read many of these wonderful tributes to my friend, and agree so much with so many of them. Especially your line above. I was never on an equal level with him in that area. Not many of us were….though some tried, and Scott would do his best to just correct them, and not embarrass. But he took me for what I was, and never expected anything more from me. That’s what a friend does.
        And your comment about his casual dress. Yeah, that was Scott. And his love for the outdoors…..we spent many , many days in his canoe travelling SE Wisconsins waterways. Great memories that I still talk about. I have mentioned my canoeing stories to my Wife and Son many times.
        And as for people still thinking about him…..well, that’s why I’m here now. I Googled my friend once again, just to see his accomplishments, and to look at his picture. I love the one with him and his backpack. Though we have been out of touch for many years, seeing that picture …..well, the t-shirt and sandals professor, yeah, that’s Scott.
        Thanks for the post and tribute. Scott’s a great guy, and I’ve thought so much about him these last weeks. How life takes you out of circles, and sometimes it’s hard to find your way back in. My regret, I didn’t get back into his circle in time.
        I end this with a regretful heart , and a mind filled with the knowledge that Scott affected many, and will be remembered for who he was……just a great guy.

        M. Andersen

      2. Mark,

        Thank you so much for this lengthy, personal response. I am always moved (but never surprised) by the depth and emotional weight (and number!) of comments from Scott’s friends and family. His life is a wonderful example of how the extent to which one chooses to live openly and honestly can benefit the lives of so many people. Each new comment from a friend or family member reinforces that. I think it is the best way to remember Scott.

        Thank you for remembering him here, so we all can share just a little bit more of our friend.

  3. I awoke to this sad news this morning and am in shock. Scott taught several of my classes and became a friend to me during my time at UNT. He showed me unusual kindess and support during a rough time early in my academic career. I have always been grateful to him for that. My sincere condolences to his family, friends and fellow students. Thank you for this moving tribute.

  4. Samuel – the memoriam that you wrote on Scott will always be with his family and friends. In fact, the funeral home is posting the memoriam for his service on Saturday for visitors to view, and we are having a plaque made to honor both you for writing a masterpiece and for Scott for touching the lives of so many people. You will never understand how touched we are by the memoriam, and it will always be close to our hearts. Foreover, RIP Scott, you will be missed.

    1. I am undone, Craig. I cannot express how humbled I am by this, and it comforts me tremendously to know that these words bring comfort to others as we all remember Scott. I know that so many people who cannot attend the funeral will definitely be there in spirit, quietly remembering Scott from wherever we are in the world, and I’m honored that this memoriam will be a part of that.

      I wish you and your family a beautiful service, and I wish much peace to Scott.

  5. Dear Mr. Brown,

    I am Scott’s mother. Your letter touched both his father and myself. Scott was truly a blessing to have as a son. We cherished every minute with him. Being such a distance away was always a challenge to keep up with his accomplishment. His wit and humor in the jokes we sent each other will surely be missed. His 4 sessions each week of cribbage will be a big void in his father’s life. We appreciate all the kind words you said. The world will miss him and also leave many without the chance tohave one of the most devoted teacher a student could wish for.

    Thanksyou from the bottom of our hearts. Life without him will be a struggle each and every day. We know he is at peace.

    Betty and Roger Simpkins
    His beloved parents

    without the chance to have one of the most devoted teachers a student could enjoy.

    1. Thank you, Mrs. and Mr. Simpkins, for this message and also for giving the world Scott. I have been much comforted by the news that he is returning home to Kenosha this weekend–just before I moved to southwest Wisconsin a few years ago, he and I spoke about his home state off and on, and it was clear he loved where he was from, both geographically and genetically.

      Life without Scott will indeed be difficult, and I can’t imagine how hard this has been for you both. But life with Scott was a pleasure, each and every day, and I’m very grateful you two sent him to us for the time we had with him.

      Much peace and comfort this weekend to all of you.

  6. Please know that his friends, former colleagues and former students from SDSU are also deeply distraught by this news. Many of us had lost touch with Scott over the years. Now, via Facebook, the memories and photos are being shared. He was only there briefly, but his classes were so popular. He was brilliant, and a lot of fun! I was a student, my husband was a colleague, and we were both friends of Scott. In Scott’s Brookings apartment, he painted the walls with huge red polkadots, and hung two red tumbleweeds in the corner of his living room. We are going to find a tumbleweed, spray paint it red, and find a place of honor to hang it in our home.

    Our thoughts and prayers go out to the Simpkins family — especially Craig whom we met many years ago at Scott’s 30th birthday party.

    Eileen and Desi Roybal

  7. As a music major, most of my memorable teachers were music professors, but Scott was one of the few non-music teachers who really made an impact on me. I will remember him always.

  8. Mr. Brown,
    I remember you from graduate school, and I appreciate your tribute to Scott Simpkins. He helped direct my dissertation that I finally finished in the fall of ’09. He was and is a strong living presence in my mind. In Denton, I often saw him sitting alone with his schoolwork at Karma cafe or Jupiter House, but I felt I could approach him with any kind of random academic question. He was the only professor I’ve known who was willing and open to engage with the randomness of life without explaining it away. Denton has a lot of characters who seem right out of a Beckett play or a Richard Avedon photograph of drifters, and Dr. Simpkins seemed to be at home among them.
    I continue to miss him.

    1. Erik, thanks for the comment! It’s funny–as glad as I am that Scott is buried back home in Wisconsin, and as much as I think that’s where he belongs, you’re absolutely right about how well Scott fit into Denton. For a long time, I was convinced he was a Denton native! I haven’t been through there since he died, but I might turn up next spring, and I’m wondering now just how different the town might feel knowing he’s no longer there.

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