The fighterWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | firstname.lastname@example.org
“This one’s a fighter”
— “The Fighter,” Gym Class Heroes
We know what we are supposed to do when life hands us lemons. But how do you respond when life treats you like the lemon, squeezing the blood from your heart and the joy from your soul?
Russell “Skip” Simpson died March 12 at age 78, two days before a scheduled open-heart surgery. At his viewing March 17 at Newcomer Funeral Home, a long line of mourners passively watched video screens that ran still images of Russ’ life. The video repeated with the silent efficiency of a soldier guarding a tomb, each new loop opening with the sentiment, “It is said most people leave this world with their stories still inside them.”
But Russ’ story, one of loss and grief turned to action and hope, was shared with the world, and the world is a stronger place for it.
On May 1, 1969, Russ and his wife Pat lost their 4-year-old daughter, Stacy, to a strangulation murder. On Aug. 31, 1981, they lost their son Scott, 19, who was shot three times while working as a security guard at the Swayne Field Kroger. Russ grieved, and despaired. Then he took action, forming a local support group that has helped hundreds of bereaved parents deal with unspeakable loss and heartbreak.
Russ was a fighter.
To me, he was the fighter.
Russ was an imposing, strong presence, but the burden of years of sharing grief and pain showed in his tired eyes. He spent decades driving a bus, and that experience must have given him a sense of control that he tried to impose on other areas of his life. Life, of course, resisted his efforts.
I first met him in September 2006, when he was re-establishing the group he helped form locally, Parents of Murdered Children (POMC). That a need exists for such a group is horrific. That Russ carried that burden for so many people is heroic.
Here are my original interview notes with Russ; he told his story slowly and evenly, with the emotionless intensity of a sun fighting through an eclipse:
Russ Simpson: “Stacy and Linda were twins, born in 1964. Stacy was just 4, so it’s hard to talk about what she did, but Stacy ran our household. To her, there was no such thing as a stranger. We’d stop at a traffic light, she’d start talking to people in the car next to us. Same at the grocery store; she talked to everyone. She had an outgoing personality.
“We lived on a dead end in the South End. On May 1, 1969, I was out of town on a charter (Simpson drove a bus for Greyhound for 27 years). My wife’s mom called and said she was coming over to take the kids for ice cream, so my wife went out on the front porch to tell the kids to stay close, their grandma was coming. This was around 7 at night. There were 17 kids on our block, so they were outside playing all the time; everyone knew everybody.
“Within 15 minutes, when my wife’s mom showed up, Stacy was gone. The neighbors started looking, the police came right away. They found her two doors down in a neighbor’s garage. She was on her tricycle, slumped over the handlebars. She had been strangled with a small piece of a dress.
“When they found Stacy, she was still warm, but back then we did not have EMS, so they took her in a paddy wagon. My wife was a registered nurse. If she had been allowed to see Stacy, maybe she could have saved her life. That’s one of the questions we’ll never have answered.
“They tracked me down and had me call my dispatcher in Detroit. He said, ‘Russ, you have to call home right away,’ and I knew it was bad because I could tell he was crying, he was all choked up.
“I called home and my mother-in-law answered the phone. She said, ‘Russ, get home as soon as you can. Stacy’s been killed.’
“She was killed by an 18-year-old neighbor boy, Terry Lee Place. He had never been in trouble. He used to baby-sit some of the kids in the neighborhood. He spent three months in a psychiatric prison where they determined he knew right from wrong, that he knew what he was doing.
“They sentenced him to 25-40 years in prison. He was released and now lives in Texas. He has kids of his own.
“My oldest boy David is still having trouble; he blames himself for her death because at 10 years old he was the big brother and he did not keep an eye on her.
“We found out Place was released in the newspaper article about our son Scott’s murder.”
Russ Simpson: “Scott was the All-American boy. He loved life. He loved basketball and did just enough in school to get the grades to play basketball. He did not like school, but he had friends all over the school, all over the neighborhood. He was an amateur sleight of hand artist, pulling handkerchiefs out of nowhere, making coins appear from kids’ ears.
“He was killed on Aug. 31, 1981, just before his birthday. He was a security guard for the Kroger Co. at Swayne Field. He stopped a shoplifter, and they tussled, rolled outside.
“Scott pinned the shoplifter to the ground and was waiting for help from inside the store when an acquaintance of the shoplifter, who was not involved in the robbery, came around the corner, behind Scott, grabbed ahold of him and shot him point blank three times in the back of the head.
“The shoplifter had taken $5.85 from the store. It was a senseless, needless killing. The murderer, Eddie Lee Robinson, had been on parole less than six months for aggravated assault when he killed Scott.
“Again, I was on the road, and when I got to Cleveland, a supervisor told me to call my dispatcher in Detroit. That rang a bell. It was the same dispatcher I talked to when Stacy was killed. He was crying when he told me to call my wife at the emergency room.
“I called her, and she said, ‘Scott’s been shot, three times. He’s alive, but he won’t be by the time you get home.’
“Two hours later, when I got home, he had already passed away.
“I just had a hearing in July when Robinson was up for parole. It was denied. The next time he comes up for parole, 2016, I’ll be too old to deal with it. Or 6 feet under.
“Back in 1969, when Stacy was killed, there were no support groups. When Scott was murdered, I located the national POMC group and started a chapter here. Having a child murdered carries a stigma. People think it’s contagious; we lost a lot of friends.
“When Stacy was murdered, I drank very heavily; I did not go back to work for five weeks. But no amount of drink filled the hole in my heart. My wife has become a workaholic. She can’t sit still. That’s how she deals with it.
“I went to Scott’s grave one day and made a promise that every day, I would make at least one person laugh or smile or feel good, because that person I make smile this afternoon may not be alive tomorrow. Making that promise is how I survived.”
After years of “heavy drinking,” Russ said he sought out other parents of murdered children and founded the Toledo chapter of POMC in 1983. His continuing efforts to educate people on the aftereffects of murder include participation in the Ohio Victim Offender Dialogue program, in which crime victims speak with the criminals who changed their lives, and visits to prisons, where he tells his story to roomfuls of murderers. Russ was always busy: planning vigils, community days, senior activities, lobbying for legislation. I stayed in contact with Russ, helping him publicize his efforts, sponsoring events, serving as a rather poor pancake cook at one of his fundraisers.
In April 2008, I sat at his family’s table when he and his Libbey classmate, then-Lucas County Sheriff James Telb, received honors at the Pizza-Coleman “Stand Up for Victims” luncheon.
“I really don’t want to be here,” Russ said at the podium. “For me, to start on the road that ended here today with all the wonderful words, the proclamations … it wasn’t worth it.”
Simpson found the grace to remind the audience that along with the victims and their families, the families of the criminal also suffer from the fallout.
“Sanity prevails,” Russ said that day. He said it twice. But in my head, a small scrap of dress used as a noose on a 4-year-old and three lead slugs taunted my belief in a rational and loving order.
Goodbye, Part I
At Newcomer, I spoke briefly with Russ’ daughter Linda, who was greeting people with the numb shock you often see on the faces of people dealing with death. Her brother, David, Russ and Pat’s surviving son, was recently placed in hospice, and a number of people at the funeral home speculated that Russ died before he had to face the loss of another child.
I do not believe that. Russ would have known his wife and daughter would need him, and Russ was a fighter. I believe he would have tried to dredge the Maumee River with his bare hands if that would have kept him alive to support his family. David died March 18, the day of Russ’ funeral.
I waited in the long line for my turn to see Pat and to say goodbye to Russ, watching the video of still images from Russ’ life. I had never seen him young, fit and trim in his military uniform. I had never seen him play with his young children, as he did in the photos on the screen. In those photos, he laughed and held his children, just as I do. Just, perhaps, as you do. Knowing what happened to those children drained the joy from the photos, and I again marveled at Russ’ strength and fighting spirit.
It saddened me to realize I was seeing something else that I had rarely seen.
At the casket, I hugged Pat and listened solemnly as she recounted the last hour of her nearly 55 years with Russ. A meal, a hug, an “I love you.” A call for help. An ambulance.
We stood at Russ’ side, and as she spoke, Pat touched his hand. To the world, he was a grief-stricken father who turned darkness into light for hundreds of people. To Pat, he was, in her words, “the rock.”
In his silk-lined coffin, dressed for the next plane of existence, Russ, silent, looked almost at peace, at long last.
I assume he is with Stacy and Scott. I hope he is holding them for the first time in decades and I hope they are seeing the smile captured in their photos with him. I pray he is at peace.
I pray his fight is over.
But somehow I doubt that. If there is an injustice wherever Russ is, he will fight it.
Goodbye, Part II
“If you lose a child in an auto accident or to a disease, there’s a funeral and then a chance to try and move on,” Russ once told me. “There’s no two-year wait for a trial, no trip through the legal system, no 15-year appeals, no parole board session, no worrying about the son of a bitch getting out of prison and doing this again.
“The difference is, our story never ends.”
The names of the murdered children will change. The names of the mourning parents will change. But Russ was correct — the story never ends. And while there is no happy ending for such stories, and little comfort, there is light, in the spirit, works and legacy of Russell “Skip” Simpson, who was struck, and struck again, but who stood and fought. And fought. And fought.
“Give ’em hell, turn their heads
Gonna live life till we’re dead.
Give me scars, give me pain
Then they’ll say to me, say to me, say to me
There goes the fighter, there goes the fighter
Here comes the fighter
That’s what they’ll say to me, say to me, say to me,
This one’s a fighter”
Michael S. Miller is editor in chief of Toledo Free Press and Toledo Free Press Star. Email him at email@example.com.