Longtime teacher and artist Mike Simpson’s legacy will be in the buildings he memorialized in art, the students he taught and the athletes he trained.
Urbana resident Simpson, 76, died Dec. 30, 2016, at Mercy McAuley Center. His obituary appeared in Wednesday’s Daily Citizen. He was a 1959 Urbana High School graduate, who received his bachelor’s degree from Ohio State University in 1963 and a master’s degree from Wright State University in 1971. He was the art teacher at Urbana High School for 50 years and spent 30 years as the athletic trainer at the high school. He was an adjunct instructor at Urbana University, for the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville and the London Correctional Institute in London. He was also an adjunct professor through Clark State Community College.
Simpson’s artwork stands as a testament to the architectural history of Urbana and is displayed in many Urbana homes and offices.
Local artist Mike Major first met Simpson when Major came to Urbana as Ohio’s first Artist in Residence in 1974, he said.
“We had a lot in common. He was such a wonderful spirit. It was easy to get to know him and work with him, along with his students, and see him try to bring the best out of his students,” he said. “He was a tremendous influence. I have said there is a ripple effect of his loving touch on hundreds and hundreds of students and others in the community that will go on for decades.”
Major remembered Simpson as a “well-rounded, creative person” and sports enthusiast. His home with his wife, Leigh Ann, “is literally a work of art and is symbolic of his creative abilities.”
And Major is equally impressed with Leigh Ann: “She was quite an inspiration to Mike, too,” he said. “I think she amplified his artistic ability and his relationships with people. I think she really was a catalyst for much of his successful career. I commend her for all she does for her family and for all she did for Michael.”
‘Generous in his praise’
Sally Johnson, a former member of the Champaign County Arts Council board and a member of the Champaign County Historical Society, said she knew Simpson personally and professionally.
“Mike was always generous in his praise of anything we did together,” she said. “He was beyond reproach in anything he ever attempted. He seemed simply to be precise and have very high standards in everything that he did.”
Simpson’s capture of Urbana’s architectural history in his paintings is one of the more notable contributions he made to the community, Johnson said.
“He preserved a great many of those buildings in his paintings,” she said.
Champaign County Historical Society Board President Dan Walter said he first met Simpson in high school. He said Simpson led architectural walking tours in Urbana during the annual Art Affair on the Square downtown.
“He knew what he was talking about,” Walter said. “He wanted the better elements of local architecture preserved; he wasn’t interested in the poor designs that popped up.”
Walter added Simpson designed his own memorial monument at Oak Dale Cemetery. Walter said Simpson’s headstone is next to Simpson’s parents’ headstones and displays Simpson with the Urbana High School “Castle” in the background and Simpson holding a paint brush and palette.
“He really loved this community, and he would do about anything for the people around here,” Walter added. “He will be missed. We need more people like him.”
Leigh Ann Inskeep-Simpson took over Mike’s former job as art teacher at the high school after he retired, and it was difficult for him to leave it behind.
“He loved teaching,” she said. “He would come in every single day and even come in during the summer. He loved being at school and interacting with the students. He didn’t want to retire. He tried it a couple of times but he wasn’t very good at it.”
Mike Simpson also enjoyed singing for his local church choir, Leigh Ann said, something he did for 58 years. That dedication reflected in everything he did.
“He was unwavering with his dedication to something he believed in,” she said.
‘The historian for Urbana’
Urbana High School Athletic Director Chuck Raterman first met Simpson when he was a student at the high school.
“I had a tremendous amount of respect for him as an athlete back then, when (Simpson) was our trainer. He was the historian for Urbana. I am going to tremendously miss that. He was the person I would always go to if I had a question about the history of Urbana athletics, and I don’t have that resource anymore,” he said.
Raterman said he remembered Simpson bringing him an old Urbana Junior High emblem referring to the Rams. He said he was always bringing nuggets of history to people in the district and around Urbana. He was also responsible for starting memorial trees for past athletes and students important to the school. That led, according to Raterman, to the inception of the George Scott Ring of Honor, where Simpson became one of the initial inductees.
But Raterman most remembered the respect everyone had for Simpson. He noted that it is tradition that students on the high school honor roll for all four years to select a teacher to present an award to, and it was often Simpson who received it.
“Almost every single time I attended that ceremony, he was getting the award from someone,” he said. “The amount of respect the kids had for him is just unbelievable.
“I will sorely miss him,” Raterman added. “He cared about Urbana, he cared about kids, he cared about the sports teams, and he cared about the history of Urbana. He was just such a great person.”
Casey S. Elliott may be reached at 937-652-1331 ext. 1772 or on Twitter @UDCElliott.