Column Inches

Victor Simpson, left, shakes hands with Pope Benedict XVI during a flight from
Beirut to Rome, Sept. 16, 2012.

by Jonathan Everitt

Covering world events from Rome for 40 years brings a perspective too expansive to be measured by counting a reporter’s front-page stories, vast though they might be. But the breadth of human events—from politics to the papacy—can all be reviewed in a conversation with one man.

Victor Simpson ’63 retired as the Associated Press’ Rome bureau chief in 2013 after a successful career spanning four decades. But not before he covered one last piece of history: the retirement of Pope Benedict XVI. A perfect swan song for a man who has known and written about four popes.

After graduation from Hobart, Simpson, who majored in political science and economics, went into the Army Reserve for six months of active duty. Afterward, he landed a series of jobs at newspapers such as the Rockland Independent and the Bergen Record. Simpson joined The Associated Press in Newark, N.J., in 1967. It wasn’t long after that Simpson told the AP he wanted to work abroad. Even though he’d only been to Italy a couple times as a tourist, Simpson recalls that he “dreamed of living there and being a foreign correspondent.” The AP sent him to language school to learn Italian, and off he went to Rome, where he was appointed news editor in 1972.

While in Rome, Simpson had a rare vantage point on history, speaking candidly to Vatican insiders and four popes. As bureau chief, Simpson was responsible for directing coverage in Italy, including the Vatican. He covered the entire papacy of the late John Paul II and accompanied him on most of his numerous foreign trips. The two shared a friendly rapport.

“I had dinner with John Paul, he knew who I was. He would nod to me,” says Simpson, who is, incidentally, Jewish. “But his real buddies were his old Polish friends.”

During a flight with Pope John Paul II, Simpson got an exclusive opportunity to hear the pope issue one of the strongest endorsements of his papacy, one supporting fellow Poles striking against communist authorities in Gdansk. The statements the pope made to Simpson on that plane trip found their way to front pages around the world—and were later considered a pivotal moment in the fall of communism in Eastern Europe.

Simpson covered some of the most important moments in the Roman Catholic Church of the past four decades—yet he was in Ireland during the 1981 attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II in St. Peter’s Square at Vatican City.

“Here’s a great irony: I was in Belfast covering the fatal hunger strike of Bobby Sands,” Simpson says, referring to a member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army who died on hunger strike while imprisoned at HM Prison Maze. “Why’d they send me? The pope sent his crucifix to Bobby Sands. He died clutching the crucifix.”

Simpson was about to retire from his long career when the unprecedented retirement of Pope Benedict XVI was announced. He postponed his own retirement by a month so he could cover the historic news—and write about the subsequent Conclave that selected Pope Francis.

While Pope Francis’ path forward won’t be covered by the retired reporter, Simpson still follows the new pontiff with fascination.

“He’s trying to take the regality out of the papacy,” says Simpson. “No more motorcades. One simple car and one police escort. That’s it. He’s also refused to live in the papal apartment. An act of utmost sanity. Do you want to live in this regal apartment all by yourself? Pope Francis lives in a hostel and eats dinner with everybody.”

Simpson likes the road the new pope is taking, and calls him a strong-willed man who’s tackling inequality around the world.

“He has angled in on one of the great issues of our time,” Simpson says. “People need to give him time.”

The Vatican wasn’t the only source of news Simpson covered as Rome bureau chief. Over his 40-plus years in Rome, he covered countless world events including the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s visit to Israel, and more recently, the Amanda Knox murder trial.

With his head filled with firsthand memories and his portfolio filled with momentous news clips about the people who shaped the past half centry, there’s one more project Simpson is considering—a book. The working title: And the Rest is History.

“I want to talk about how difficult it is to be a hero in this world, about the difficult decisions and challenges I’ve seen incredible men and women face,” he says. “And share the things I’ve experienced in my life that may have messages in them.”


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