Don Simpson Sr. dies at 87

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Donald Simpson Jr., Max Simpson, Cole Simpson and Donald Simpson Sr. (Courtesy Photo)
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By Missy Schrott | mschrott@alextimes.com

Donald F. Simpson Sr., prominent city businessman and benefactor, died on May 14. He was 87.

Simpson is known throughout the community as the developer behind the construction or remodeling of INOVA Alexandria Hospital, Alexandria City Hall, George Washington Masonic Temple, Gadsby’s Tavern, Christ Church and the Torpedo Factory Art Center, among several other significant city buildings.

“He really enjoyed transforming the city and completing new projects,” Simpson’s son, Don Simpson Jr., said. “He took a lot of pride in his work.”

Donald F. Simpson in 1952. (Courtesy Photo)

A lifelong Alexandrian, Simpson Sr. graduated from George Washington High School in 1948. From there, he went to Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University to study business. After graduating in 1952, he served two years in the United States Army during the Korean Conflict as a second lieutenant.

When he returned from his tour in Korea in 1954, he joined the family contracting firm, Eugene Simpson & Brother, with his father and uncle. When the firm was acquired in 1985, Simpson started Simpson Development Co., a full service real estate development firm. From its inception, Simpson served as chairman of the firm’s development and leasing activities, leading the construction or renovation of numerous Alexandria landmarks.

Over the span of his 65-year career, Simpson oversaw more than 300 projects throughout the Northern Virginia and Washington metropolitan areas. He also led the construction of several public and private city schools, which were a personal passion.

Mel Fortney, Donald Simpson and Steve Edmunds at the Lee Building in 1969. (Courtesy Photo)

“He was a graduate of the City of Alexandria public schools. They were pretty near and dear to his heart,” Simpson Jr. said. “He enjoyed improving and helping out any of the sports complexes or anything where the schools system really didn’t have the money or needed assistance from the business community.”

The Simpson family is one of the original founders of the Scholarship Fund of Alexandria. Starting in 1984, Simpson led efforts to provide scholarships to T.C. Williams High School students.

“[He was a] very humble individual,” Mike Wicks, president of the Rotary Club of Alexandria, said. “You would never know how successful he was. He treated everyone very kindly. He was all about relationships.”

When Wicks came to Alexandria as a young accountant in 1974, his first client was Eugene Simpson & Brother.

The 30-story Raddison Hotel (now the Hilton Alexandria Mark Center) was one of Donald Simpson Sr.’s favorite projects to work on, Donald Simpson Jr. said. The continuous concrete pour that formed the building’s shell was one of the first in the country. (Courtesy Photo)

“I liked the fact of how they ran their business with integrity and how they had relationships with all their subcontractors,” Wicks said. “They were a very big part of why I stayed in Alexandria.”

Wicks also knew Simpson through the Rotary Club. With 64 years of service, Simpson was the Rotary Club of Alexandria’s longest-standing member, Wicks said.

Beyond the family business and his involvement with Rotary and the Scholarship Fund, Simpson was extremely active in the community. He served as a member, director or president of several community organizations including SunTrust Bank, Friendship Veterans Fire Engine Association, Goodwin House, Inc., Alexandria Salvation Army and the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership.

Volunteer Alexandria also awarded the Simpson family the first Legacy of Giving Award in 2008.

“He was just a great man who just believed in serving his community and giving back and always looking for solutions,” Alexandria Sheriff Dana Lawhorne said. “He’s carried those traditions down almost three generations of giving back to the community and never really turning their back on their city or anybody that was in need.”

While Simpson is most well known for giving back to his hometown and his development projects, Simpson Jr. said his father was, first and foremost, a family man.

“He always made sure everyone in his family had everything they needed to be successful, whether it’s a savings fund for college or a nest egg after they finished college,” Simpson Jr. said. “He loved his family. He just enjoyed being around his family. … I think he was happiest when he was with his family.”

Simpson with the Virginia Concrete and Southern Iron Works teams in the 1960s. (Courtesy Photo)

Those who knew Simpson often mention the family legacy associated with his name.

“There were a lot of longtime Alexandria families,” Simpson Jr. said. “We, being a third or fourth generation Alexandria family, had relationships with a lot of those families and ended up working with them, whether it was Virginia Concrete or Southern Iron or Fannon Fuel.

“It was just a really neat opportunity to not only work with folks you knew, but we had longstanding friendships that last today,” he said. “My generation is friends with all those families today. … All those same families that my grandfather was friends with and my dad. We’ve carried that on in Alexandria, which is pretty unique.”

One of those longtime family friends, Tom Fannon of T.J. Fannon & Sons, said he can recall Simpson’s sense of adventure.

“Don was very good friends with my father,” Fannon said. “The adventures they had could fill a book. … He traveled extensively, often with my father, T.J. Fannon. They skied all over the Rockies, and they bicycled all over Europe. They were inveterate travelers.”

Fannon and Simpson Jr. both said, as children, they enjoyed tagging along with their fathers to construction projects.

Simpson at the Tavern Square urban renewal project in 1964. (Courtesy Photo)

“The thing that just strikes me about Donald Simpson is that there are a number of men around this city … who were great gentlemen,” Fannon said. “Donald Simpson was one of those people. They worked, they participated in the city … and they were just gracious. They just carried themselves with such grace in so many situations, and I just look at them as great gentlemen.”

Wicks said the impact Simpson made is more evident than ever.

“Donald was one of the real icons of our city,” Wicks said. “I think it was evident at his funeral. The church was packed, and it was packed with people of all generations, because their family has impacted many, many people at all levels of society, and everyone was there. I think that makes a real statement as to how he lived his life and how he was respected.”

Simpson is survived by his wife of 50 years, Lynne; his sister, Sarah Fortney; his three children, Gayle, Dorothy Ellen and Don Jr. and his seven grandsons, Eric, Matt, Chris, Austin, Davis, Cole and Max. He was preceded in death by his sister Jean and son David.

A celebration of life service was held on May 24. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Capital Caring, 5845 Richmond Highway, or Goodwin House Alexandria, 4800 Fillmore Ave.

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