By Mary Boone
Wrapping a label around Harold “Hal” Simonson ’50 is no simple task.
“Fair-minded, low-key, and responsible,” suggests Robert Schulman, a colleague from his teaching days at the University of Washington.
“He’s compassionate and humble—a real quiet force,” says Agnes Thomsen, volunteer coordinator for MultiCare Hospice, a program to which Simonson has devoted hundreds of hours.
Perhaps Simonson’s 5-year-old granddaughter, Audrey, comes closest when she says: “He likes to play.”
Playing, after all, is what Simonson has been doing since he retired from teaching in 1991. He’s played with words, composing dozens of poems. He’s played the roles of student, spiritual advisor, and music aficionado. And, yes, he’s spent plenty of hours down on the floor, playing blocks and board games with his five adoring grandchildren.
“Retirement has been a beautiful experience,” he says. “It hasn’t been an ending as much as it’s been a time to learn and experience new things.”
A Tacoma native, Simonson enrolled at Puget Sound in 1945 and left a year later to serve 18 months in the U.S. Army. Upon completing his military service, Simonson returned to Tacoma and earned his English degree in 1950. He then headed off to Northwestern University to get both his master’s and doctoral degrees.
“[Then-president] Dr. [R. Franklin] Thompson came out to Chicago to see if I was interested in coming back,” recalls Simonson. “We talked a little, and he hired me on the spot. That was the way it was done back then.”
Simonson joined the Puget Sound faculty in 1955 and served as chairman of the English department from 1960 until 1968. “We used to have our department meetings on Friday afternoons at the old Top of the Ocean restaurant,” he says. “I think other departments envied the fact that we all liked each other. We were a collegial bunch.”
After leaving Puget Sound, Simonson taught another 23 years at the University of Washington. At various times during his academic career Simonson was a Fulbright lecturer in Greece, visiting fellow at Princeton Theological Seminary, research fellow at Yale Divinity School, and honorary fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.
He was ordained as a Congregational minister in 1994 and served two years as interim pastor at Tacoma’s First Congregational Church. He also spent two years as a hospice volunteer and chaplain, an experience he describes as “tender but emotionally draining.”
Simonson has published many articles, reviews, and textbooks. His collection of personal essays, Going Where I Have To Go: Essays from Within, was nominated for the 1996 National Book Award. These days Simonson is finishing a book about his work as a minister that he’s tentatively calling One Clear Call, a name that comes from a line in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “Crossing the Bar.”
Inspired by his wife, Carolyn, who wrote her autobiography, Simonson also is working to write his own life story.
“But poetry’s my big thing now,” he says. “It’s a whole new game for me. I’m enjoying the imagery, the sounds, the symbols; every word is so important. As a teacher of literature, I read and loved poetry, but writing it is different. Now I feel like a performer who, after years of playing beautiful sonatas, has decided to try his hand at composing.”
Simonson calls his poetry a private pleasure and says he’s not in a rush to have his work widely published.
“My father was a carpenter, and when he finished a house he would always bring the whole family to see the final product,” he says. “I like that idea. I like the process of working and working and working on something and then standing back and saying, ‘Yeah, that’s pretty good.’ It’s a terrific feeling.”
Interested alumni can write to Hal Simonson at P.O. Box 7487, Tacoma, WA 98406.
by Harold Simonson
What drives me now is not to see Jerusalem and Athens once again or stroll the cobbled streets of Edinburgh and breathe the hush
of Giles’s Cathedral; not to wander among the crosses of
Verdun and Normandy and shrink my soul at Dachau;
not still again to summit Mount Rainier and race
the miles in Point Defiance Park.
I’m happy just to sit quietly here,
reading a little, writing a little,
sailing with the gulls and clouds,
glutting upon the roses and the rowan tree
I planted fifty years ago.
Today my feast is lunch—with her—
beneath a high blue sky—a marriage older than the tree—
the noonday sun warming our shoulders and our love,
Seasoning what we’ve learned but not inscribed:
life’s waxing and waning make a single curve.