Former United States Sen. Alan Simpson is known for his strong, no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is style. It’s only right, then, that his elegant wife, Ann, equals him in grit and forthright determination.
It’s not difficult to find a few examples.
In 1953, as part of Al’s Army career, the Simpsons moved to Germany on Flying Tiger Airlines. It was Ann’s first time on a plane, but she wasn’t nervous. Al was, however. “He kept comforting me, but I said I’m not scared,” Ann recalls.
After Al’s retirement in 1997, he was asked to join the Harvard John F. Kennedy School of Government as a visiting lecturer. They lived in a two-bedroom, kitchenless suite in Eliot House, a five-story dormitory of red brick that sits on the banks of the Charles River, a place that has housed everyone from Jay Rockefeller to Benazir Bhutto. The students welcomed the Simpsons, and they were as interested in Ann as they were in Al.
A couple of times, Al asked Ann to sit in on his classes. At one point, Al mentioned something to the class that Ann had said, and then went on to say what Ann had thought. She spoke up and said, “No. That’s not the way I see it,” she recalls. Always generous, Al said, “OK, tell us what you think,” and so Ann did. Soon after, Ann was invited to teach a class, and the students brought their spouses to listen. “I was very open,” Ann says, “and Al winced a few times.” She also received a standing ovation.
Ann has always been at Al’s side, supporting his career, but she’s no shrinking violet. Wherever she goes, she finds a group of active and committed women. In Cody, it was the American Association of University Women who gathered to discuss current events and books. In Washington, D.C., it was the Senate Wives. She also joined forces with Antoinette Hatfield to sell real estate, and with Nancy Domenici to advocate for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
It was her passion for art, coupled with years of campaigning in small towns, which gave her the idea for what has become one of the University of Wyoming Art Museum’s greatest outreach efforts. The Ann Simpson Artmobile has traveled the state for the past 30 years, showing off the museum’s collection and engaging students with hands-on activities.
“My philosophy of fundraising is [to] make sure you believe very strongly in what you’re raising funds for, and then you’re not asking people to do you a favor,” she says. “You’re doing them a favor by asking them to participate in a worthwhile thing.”
But, family has always come first. When the couple’s three children were young, Ann spent much time in Cody, even while Al served in the Wyoming State Legislature in Cheyenne. When they discovered that son Bill had a food allergy, Ann spent seven years planning meals that excluded milk and corn. “You can’t even buy meat wrapped in white paper because it is coated in corn gloss,” says Ann. They ate exclusively meat and vegetables and fruit.
While Al and Ann served their state in Washington, D.C., they lived in a townhouse in Virginia, about 20 minutes from the capital. It was lovely, she says, and decorated with affordable antiques that she found at auctions. They quickly learned to refuse all house guests but their three children, however. “It was very private, and we needed that,” says Ann.
While Al attended to his duties as Wyoming’s senator, Ann supported Al by taking Wyoming constituents on tours of the White House and to lunch in the Senate Dining Room. “Our life was jam-packed,” says Ann. She also sold real estate, which allowed their children to get college degrees without taking out student loans.
Every afternoon, Ann would have a two-hour break. She would drive home, go through the mail, take a nap and get dressed for the evening. “Fortunately, I was able to nap because I don’t know what would have happened to me.” She and Al would always have a late dinner together—on the patio, if the weather allowed it.
Each day, Al brought home a synopsis of the Wyoming news, including births and obituaries, and Ann always read them. “I knew more about what was going on in Wyoming than most people in Wyoming,” she says. This allowed them to stay in touch and write personal responses.
Ann loves Wyoming. “I love the freedom and the long, open spaces,” she says. “Wyoming means freedom and a good lifestyle. I realize we are very privileged.”
Ann’s grandparents, Colin and Peggy Mackenzie, were born in India, but met in Colorado. They ended up in Wyoming when Colin, who was on his way to Alaska in search of gold, stopped in the rural outpost of Shell in Big Horn County. He ended up buying a ranch and building a store, which they ran for many years.
“Grandmother was a great influence on us,” Ann says. “She was quite proper, but I can remember always being embarrassed by her saying, ‘Put the car was in the gare-age,’ and how she ate European style.” As a young adult, Ann’s grandmother had stayed in England with a stern maiden aunt who insisted she clean her plate. “So when I was around grandmother when I was a child I was not required to eat everything,” Ann says.
Their daughter, Pansy, met and married a young railroad fireman named Ivan Schroll, and the family moved to Greybull. A son, Robert, was born, and then 3 ½ years later, Ann and her twin sister Nan were born.
“As a child growing up, I was quite hyperactive, full of questions,” Ann says. “My sister was very calm and pleasant to be with, so I was always foisted off on my father. We became very close. He loved the fact that I was bright and had a lot of questions, so I grew up thinking it was good to be the way I was.”
Everything changed, though, when Ann was a junior in high school. Her beloved father died suddenly of a brain tumor. Ann’s brother, Robert, was at the University of Wyoming by this time, and so Ann’s mother moved the family to Laramie, where Ann and Nan both graduated from UW with degrees in elementary education. Following graduation, she began teaching.
It was at UW that Ann met a promising young history student named Al Simpson. They married, Al joined the Army, and they were soon on their way to Germany, where they lived for two years. Being from Wyoming, she was comfortable driving, so she became the driver for the adventurous wives. “It was a mind-expanding experience for a girl from Greybull, Wyoming,” Ann says.
Then the Simpsons returned to Wyoming to allow Al to finish his law degree. While they were away, someone broke into their storage and stole all their clothing. They were on a tight budget, and so Ann bought three or four blouses and a couple of skirts. “It was a wonderful lesson—because life was so uncomplicated. I gradually built up my wardrobe, but my uniform to date is a white blouse and black sweater. It works. That’s how people recognize me.”
Their son Bill was born, and then Colin and Susan. Al worked for the Wyoming Attorney General and then was elected to the state legislature. They bought a house in Cody, and Ann got her real estate license.
But then tragedy struck. Her twin sister’s daughter, Susan, developed schizophrenia, ultimately taking her own life. It was devastating to the family and prompted Ann’s advocacy on behalf of those with mental illness.
After 13 years in the State Legislature and following their children’s graduation from high school, Al was elected to the U.S. Senate, and the couple went to Washington, D.C. Al served as one of Wyoming’s senators from 1979 to 1997, taught and served as a director at Harvard for 3 ½ years, and then was appointed by President Obama to co-chair the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. Through it all, Ann was there to support him while nurturing their family and making friends.
“As the years have gone on, I just feel so blessed that I did grow up in Wyoming and that I did have the opportunities that I had through education and my marriage,” says Ann. “Being married to a wonderful person who’s provided me with a fabulous life, a loyal loving person.”
Ann says the couple did go through a rough patch in their marriage in their late 30s and early 40s, but they got through it with the help of their church and the Encounter Movement. “We were able to learn about ourselves,” Ann says. “It’s probably the most important thing that ever happened in our lives, probably the reason we’re still married.”
She adds, “When young people ask for advice on marriage, I say, ‘If you are in trouble, don’t try to solve it yourself. Get help.’”
Whether she is speaking to teachers in Meeteetse or visiting the Bush family in Kennebunkport, Ann Simpson is elegant, insightful, confident and rock-solid—a Wyoming girl of timeless beauty with a smile as wide as the whole outdoors. She has a quiet presence, yet she draws the eyes of everyone in the room. Her clothes are classic and stylish, her hair and makeup impeccably done. She is intensely curious about the people and world around her. She is that bright little girl, full of questions, all grown up.