Obituary: Charles R. Simpson, 1941-2021 | Obituaries | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Obituary: Charles R. Simpson, 1941-2021 

Activist worked to make the world a better, kinder, more interesting place

click to enlarge Charles Simpson - COURTESY PHOTO
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  • Charles Simpson

Charles R. Simpson — writer, community organizer, activist, teacher, scholar, husband, father, friend — died on May 3, 2021, in his home in Burlington, Vt., after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He is survived by his wife, Anita Rapone; his daughter, Ana Maria Simpson-Rapone; and his two sisters, Andrea Munafo White and Leslie Simpson. He also leaves behind a community of friends, comrades and former students, who mourn his loss and treasure his significant contributions to intellectual discourse and ethical community action. Charles’ mind and his heart made the world a better, kinder, more interesting place.

Charles was born on November 5, 1941, in Boston, Mass., to parents Robert and Florence Jennings Simpson. He earned a BA from Tufts University and a PhD in sociology from the graduate faculty of the New School for Social Research, in New York City, where he wrote his dissertation, SoHo: The Artist in the City, on the challenges of living as an artist in New York City and the cycle of gentrification. Charles and his wife, Anita, were both first-generation college kids, and, she says, they may have fallen into academia by accident.

After an unsuccessful start in college as an engineering student, Charles soon found out that would not work for him. He and Anita became philosophy students who then moved into the more viable disciplines of sociology and history, respectively. In the 1960s, the university was where most of the activism was. Charles proceeded to become a professor of sociology, teaching at SUNY Plattsburgh from 1978 to 2012, where one of his best experiences was taking students to Oaxaca as codirector of the college's Southern Mexico Program, a semester-long study-abroad experience for liberal arts, nursing and education students.

He remained active in the university’s Institute for Ethics in Public Life, presenting a colloquy on food insecurity in February 2021 via Zoom.

He was a member of the Burlington Friends Meeting, but his connection to the Quakers goes back to the 1960s, when he and his wife and their friends used to get all their anti-war literature from the American Friends Service Committee office in Cambridge. Then Charles got help from the Quakers in becoming a conscientious objector. In later life, in Burlington, the attraction was their social activism. For the last few years, Charles served on the AFSC Corporate Board and then on the Northeast Region of the AFSC. He was also a longtime participant in another group of friends — not Friends — who met semiregularly to talk about education, social issues, local and global politics, philosophy, and activism. COVID-19 forced the group into meeting on Zoom, where some members got to see Charles for the last time, struggling to sit up but still trying, despite everything, to continue to contribute, to understand and to heal the world, up until the very end.

Charles was active in the anti-war movement in the 1960s and '70s in New York and Boston. Later, in Burlington, he was on the front lines in community politics and organizing, collaborating with South End artists to preserve the arts district from gentrifying zoning changes, working with Save Open Space in an attempt to preserve the land and ecosystem of the former Burlington College on North Avenue, fighting the siting of the F-35s at Burlington International Airport, fighting for alternatives to the Champlain Parkway, and cofounding an alliance of community groups called Coalition for a Livable City. Charles was on the Neighborhood Planning Assembly Steering Committee and ran for city council twice in Burlington’s Ward 6. He was very concerned that immigrants might be in increasing need of protection, so he started an interfaith committee on sanctuary, which organized two conferences, one on sanctuary and one on asylum.

Charles wrote extensively on social and political issues for 05401, wrote a young adult novel and published his first novel, Uncertain Harvest, with Fomite Press in 2020. The book deals with food security and the threat of globalized technology, using his considerable research in Guatemala and Oaxaca. The book’s blurb summarizes the plot as follows: “While attending an economic conference in the Austrian Alps, New York business reporter Ed Decker learns that Naturtek plans to replace traditional crops with their patented 'terminator seeds' that produce plants that die after a single harvest. When Decker learns that the scheme also threatens insect life, his investigation moves from a business story to something even more ominous.” A podcast interview with Charles about the book can be accessed here: shoutout.wix.com/so/51NVTkkGe?languageTag=en&cid=a08347ed-a2ca-444e-ba88- a65bd8e603a8#/main.

In response to messages of concern, Charles sent a note to his friends — a sort of goodbye message, wondering whether the experience of dying was teaching him anything about facing the inevitable, wondering if an individual life was something more than a "smear of ash upon a page." Charles concluded that his life was more than that, if only because he loved and was loved. One might add: because we love the world. Such love is the greatest impetus for fighting, as Charles did, against myriad injustices and threats to humanity. His work, his commitment and his friendship certainly amount to a life well lived.

Donations in Charles’ honor can be made to Friends Concerns, c/o Burlington Friends Meeting, 173 N. Prospect St., Burlington, VT 05401 to benefit Abenaki Helping Abenaki.

There will be a memorial, under an outdoor tent, on October 9, 2 p.m., outside the Friends Meeting House, 173 N. Prospect St., Burlington.

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