Al Simpson is pillar of Wyoming politics, a well-known name across the country, and a benefactor of the American Heritage Center. Simpson enjoyed a long political career spanning the years 1964 to 1997. He is both a politician and a statesman and has held a wide variety of positions in local, state and national government.
Alan “Al” Kooi Simpson was born in Denver, Colorado, on September 2, 1931. His parents were Milward Simpson, a former United States senator and Wyoming governor, and Lorna Kooi Simpson.
A self-described “rebellious” youth, Simpson attended public school in Cody, Wyoming. In 1950 he enrolled at the University of Wyoming, where he studied law. At UW, Simpson was a member of the student senate and the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity. He played both varsity football and basketball and was president of the “W” Club for athletic lettermen. Simpson graduated with Bachelor of Science in 1954 and that same year married Ann Schroll from Greybull, Wyoming.
After graduation, Simpson joined the U.S. Army, where he was a second lieutenant. Simpson served in Germany, was discharged from the Army in 1956, and returned to Wyoming. Once stateside, Simpson reenrolled at the University of Wyoming to study law and went on to receive a Juris Doctorate degree in 1958.
Simpson joined the Cody-based law firm owned by his father and Charles G. Kepler, making it the firm of Simpson, Kepler and Simpson. Simpson practiced law in Cody until 1976. He also served from 1959 to 1969 as a Cody city attorney and during the year 1959, as assistant attorney general of Wyoming.
Alan Simpson’s statewide political career began in 1964. He was elected to the Wyoming State Legislature as a representative of Park County. Simpson spent 13 years as a representative, serving in several different capacities. He held the positions of majority whip, majority floor leader, and speaker pro tempore during his time in the Wyoming House.
In 1978, Simpson entered the race for a U.S. Senate seat. He ran as a Republican and was elected that same year.
Simpson was re-elected twice, for a total of three terms, serving as one of Wyoming’s two senators for eighteen years.
Simpson sponsored 338 bills and amendments and co-sponsored more than 2000 other pieces of legislation. The bills and amendments included the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1985, also known as the Simpson-Mazzoli Act. Work on the act was bipartisan (Romano Mazzoli was a Democrat in the House of Representatives) and considered a model for congressional problem solving.
While Simpson had working relationships with Presidents Carter, Reagan and Clinton, it was his connection with George H.W. Bush that was the most significant.
Simpson’s relationship with Bush dated back to 1962, when their fathers were both senators. Over time, the two men and their wives developed a deep and abiding friendship, which blossomed while Bush served as vice president under Ronald Reagan. Simpson was asked to eulogize Bush in 2018. Simpson remembered delighting in joining Bush and his wife, Barbara, in the president’s box at the Kennedy Center. The two men shared a love of show tunes and the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber. Simpson admitted that they “didn’t tell people how close we were.” But it was Al and Ann Simpson who joined the Bushes at the White House for their last night there, and Al and Ann who walked the Bushes to the helicopter that carried them away from the White House for the very last time. It was during that last night at the White House that the two couples went up to the White House roof, and Al and George tossed snowballs, to the amusement of their wives.
The list of positions held by Simpson during his time in the U.S. Senate is long. He was Senate majority and minority whip for ten years and the chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee. He also served on the Judiciary Committee and co-chaired its Subcommittee on Immigration and Refugee Policy. Additionally, he served on the Environmental and Public Works Committee, the Finance Committee’s Subcommittee on Social Security and Family Policy, the Special Committee on Aging, and the Select Committee to Investigate Undercover Operations of the FBI and Department of Justice.
Unafraid to reach across the political aisle to get things done, Simpson was friendly with Democrats, including Senator Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy. Kennedy and Simpson co-hosted a popular radio program called Face-Off in which the two debated national issues and socially important topics in two-minute segments. The program was aired on the Mutual Broadcasting System five days a week for eight years during the 1980s and 1990s.
Simpson retired from the Senate on January 3, 1997, but his career as a stateman was far from over. He went on to serve as the Director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He also took time to author Right in the Old Gazoo: A Lifetime of Scrapping with the Press, published in 1997. It was replete with vividly told anecdotes and written in his distinctive “pull no punches” style.
In 2000, Simpson returned to Cody to continue practicing law. Then, after the September 11 terror attacks in 2001, he was selected as co-chairman of the Continuity of Government Commission. He also served on the American Battle Monuments Commission.
He often spoke on television news programs and lectured at the University of Wyoming.
Additionally, Simpson served on the boards of many corporations and nonprofits, including on the board of trustees for the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody.
In 2010 President Obama named him co-chair of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.
Simpson, in his retirement, was also active in supporting the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation. As a twelve-year-old boy, Simpson had met Norman Mineta, who became a lifelong friend. Mineta had been interned at Heart Mountain during World War II and Simpson was there attending a Boy Scout jamboree hosted by Mineta’s Boy Scout troop. Mineta went on to become a Democrat elected to represent California in the U.S. House of Representatives. The two men reunited in Washington, D.C., and collaborated on the 1988 Civil Liberties Act, which, among other things, formally apologized Japanese Americans held behind barbed wire during the war. Simpson’s and Mineta’s long friendship was honored by the creation of the Mineta-Simpson Institute at Heart Mountain.
Simpson has also been a longtime supporter of activities here at the American Heritage Center. The Alan K. Simpson Institute is an AHC program that focuses on the acquisition, preservation and research use of the papers of prominent individuals, businesses and organizations that have provided leadership – political, economic, social and cultural – for Wyoming and the Rocky Mountain region.
In July 2022, Simpson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his years of public service and statesmanship. He was recognized as a prominent advocate for campaign finance reform and responsible governance. President Joe Biden praised Simpson for “forging real relationships, even with people on the other side of the aisle” and for being “one of the most decent, stand-up, genuine guys I’ve ever served with.”
If you are interested in learning more about the storied career of retired U.S. Senator Alan K. Simpson, see the American Heritage Center’s extensive collection of his papers.
This blog post by AHC Writer Kathryn Billington is based on a Virmuze virtual exhibit curated by American Heritage Center archives aide Tyler Rasmussen.