Trying to tell a story about Pat Simms is like trying to paint a portrait of Leonardo da Vinci: You are working in the master’s medium, the master is awe inspiring and you’ll never perform half as well as they would.
For 42 years, she broke barrier after barrier at the Wisconsin State Journal, as she put the fear of God in her sources and told her audience what they needed to know most. She was constantly ahead of the curve, becoming one of the first women in the newsroom and definitely the first one who got maternity leave. She was a coiled steel spring who would hold her own against the men who wondered why she was “allowed” in what had previously been an all-boys club. She could also bring the heat at sources who thought they could pat her on the head and send her on her way with a fluffy soundbite.
The legendary newsroom story about Pat is of her strapping on a gas mask to cover the Vietnam War protests at UW-Madison at the beginning her career at the paper. At the end of it, she was covering the Act 10 protests at the State Capitol. In between, she was a reader’s dream and a weaselly source’s nightmare.
This week, I got a message from a friend that almost stopped my heart:
“Pat Simms is in hospice with uterine cancer. We all thought she could beat it with chemo. It spread. I am sad beyond words.”
Her daughter reached out to her former colleagues at the paper with this message:
We would like you to inform fellow journalists about my mom’s condition at this time.In January my mom was diagnosed with uterine cancer. We were optimistic that with chemotherapy it would be treatable. Unfortunately we have received some bad news.New scans were done and the cancer has now spread to her lungs. We need to stop the chemo because her body can’t take it. And we can’t do radiation because you can’t radiate the whole lungs. So we are now focusing on quality of life. We are going to get a second opinion so we will see what they say. But for now we are preparing for living out her days at home with calm and as comfortable as possible.They have given her about 6 months.
When I was at the State Journal in mid-1990s, the desk I shared with the day-shift GA reporter was right next to Pat’s. Our computers faced each other and consisted of old ugly hard drives and giant beige monitors that were so tall you couldn’t see the person across from you. Still, I could hear every conversation Pat had, as her phone was constantly ringing with tips, scoops and “guess-what-I-heard” insights.
At that time, she was writing her “Snoop” column, which served as a mix of Page Six style gossip and a floodlight of attention she shone on area hypocrisy. In my mind’s eye, I can still see the mug shot that ran with each column: She had her chin resting on her hand and her eyes sparkled with an “I-know-something-you-don’t-know” look.
The sheer volume of people who called her in a day would be enough to stop a speeding 18-wheeler in its tracks. People from all over the place called in to tip her about some shady deal, some hushed-up arrest or some bizarre tale. It was every day, all day that she took call after call and listened to these people, some of whom I’m absolutely certain were just bat-shit nuts.
Somehow, she was able to parse fact from crap, truth from political hatchetry and interesting content from inside baseball. How she was able to fact check all of those insane stories people shared with her was beyond me.
Whenever I thought I had gotten an exclusive tip on something and I was explaining it to an editor, the answer was almost always, “Oh, yeah. That ran in Snoop on (fill in the day).” It got to the point where I read Pat’s column first every day so I would stop looking like an idiot by pitching old news. On the extremely rare occasion where I did have something she hadn’t heard, her head would pop up like a Whack-A-Mole over the top of those computer monitors and she’d be asking questions of me, trying to figure out what I knew and how she hadn’t heard it first.
When I left the paper to head off to Mizzou, Pat congratulated me, but went out of her way to remind me that her alma mater, Northwestern, was the best J-school in the country. If it produced journalists like Pat, it was really hard to disagree.
The last time I saw Pat was a little more than two years ago. Out of the clear blue sky, I got an email from her that simply read: “I just decided to use your book as the textbook for my Fall Introduction to Journalism class. How about that?”
In her “retirement” she had taken on a job as a journalism professor at Edgewood College in Madison, where she had also started advising student media. She told me she’d been reading the blog and that’s why she picked my book. She asked if I was going to be at the state media convention and if we could talk about the book and her class.
When we met up, she grilled me like I was a source. It was all “How does this work?” and “So, why would I include this in the syllabus?” and “Wait, that doesn’t make sense. Explain it again.”
It was incredible to me because I wanted to say, “You’re Pat FRICKIN’ Simms. The kids in your class are going to pick up about 50 IQ points by just being near you. The hell do you need me for?”
Still, there she was, seven years into retirement, 50 years into her journalism career, trying something new. She was bound and determined to learn how best to ply her trade. She was going to make absolutely certain that she did it right and that she left no stone unturned in making that happen.
Pat’s daughter asked people to share stories about Pat to buoy her spirit. The stories I have pale in comparison to those of people who knew her longer and better, but in the few years I spent with my computer terminal butted against hers at the State Journal, she made a profound impact on me. Here are two memories that still stick with me:
“THEY’RE YOUR STORIES. GO DO THEM.”
I worked nights and weekends at the paper. During the nights, we had a consistent crew of me from 6 p.m. and 2 a.m., a specific swing-shift reporter from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. and the night city editor from godknowswhen to godknowswhen. Weekends were a different story, in that I was always there on Sundays from 10 to 6, but the reporter and the editor were always changing, based on who got stuck taking a reporting turn that day.
One Sunday, I got a call from someone who complained that there were recruiting pamphlets for the Ku Klux Klan in a free newspaper rack outside of a local grocery store. I was ready to rush out there when I got another call from someone telling me that a tagger or group of taggers had basically destroyed the side of a Walgreens on campus with spray paint.
I went to the grocery store, got the last two copies of the Klan brochures and interviewed the store manager. I then stopped outside of the Walgreens to take some notes when a kid in a trench coat stopped and asked me, “Do you like that stuff?”
I told him I didn’t have an opinion one way or the other, but I wanted to know more about it. He then opened up his coat and showed me a couple cans of spray paint stuffed into his inside pockets.
I interviewed the tagger kid, who gave me some great stuff and I got back to the newsroom just in time to catch a call from the editor who was coming in later that day. He asked me if anything was going on and I told him all about the two stories I had.
“OK, Simms is coming in about an hour from now,” he told me. “Give her the pick of those two stories and you do the other one.”
My heart sank, as I was wondering which one she was going to pick. They were both REALLY good stories and I knew they would be byline-worthy. No matter which one she got, Pat’s story was going to be amazing and way better than what I could have done.
Pat showed up about a half hour later in a rush, as usual. She was unloading her purse and coat at her desk when I told her about the two stories and how she was supposed to pick one of them.
“You do them both,” she said. “Ralph Hanson died and I need to do an obit.”
Pat had gotten a tip (as she always did) and was pulling sources from her files to write his obituary. Still, Pat could have written that piece, my two pieces and probably another story during her shift and done it without breaking a sweat.
“But the editor said-” I began.
“They’re YOUR stories,” she told me. “Go do them. I’ll tell (the editor) when he gets here what’s going on.”
The KKK story made the top of the front page and led every newscast the next day. The tagging story was on the local section’s front cover. Both had my bylines. It was the greatest day I’d ever had as a professional writer.
One thing that I still treasure about that day was how Pat treated me as an equal. She was quite literally doing professional journalism before I was born, and yet in her way of thinking, we were just two reporters in a newsroom, banging out stories and waiting for an editor to show up. The way she saw it, I caught the story, I did the work and I should keep going on it.
The other thing, however, was that she had a sense as to how much this really mattered to me. I was 21, had less than a year in at the paper and barely got any bylines. Pat’s byline file was crammed with so much great stuff, that I doubt she would even remember either of these two stories. For me, it was the kind of thing that would have me buying a dozen extra copies of the paper to send to my parents and grandparents.
To not only give me ownership of those stories, but to “tell the editor” that they were my stories (a concept for me that, at the time, was like trying to set God straight about a few things) showed me something important: It was possible to be the big dog while not making someone else feel like the runt of the litter.
Ever since that day, I always looked for the opportunity to do that for someone else, which is probably why I ended up in education. I wanted to aid in those moments that made someone desperate to pick up a phone and call home to say, “The best thing just happened!”
“WE’RE GOING OUT.”
I had broken off my engagement with a city council rep, something that was awkward personally and professionally. Given that I had to tell my employers we were in a relationship, I now had to tell them we were no longer an item. It was a messy situation and I wasn’t handling things really well.
Around that time, Pat was going through some personal turmoil as well. We were bantering over our life misfortunes when she got out of her chair and poked her head over the top of our computer monitors.
“Are you on the desk Saturday night?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “Why?”
“We’re going out.”
She said she had four tickets for a comedy club opening and she’d given two of them to a couple of her friends. She wanted me to go with her because “you need a laugh.”
We got to this club and a few things became clear.
First, everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, knew Pat. It was like going somewhere with the pope.
People were coming up to her from every direction to tell her something or ask her something. The club owner told her the club area wouldn’t open for a few more minutes, but she could wait in this little area to the side so she wouldn’t be bothered. Pat refused, staying right in the middle of the action and talking to anyone who came within shouting distance.
Second, she had some serious pull. We got escorted to this table that is up front and slightly left of center. A friend of mine later explained that this was the best table in a club, because they usually seated VIPs there. Comedians were told not to bother these people with their shtick. Thus, while some poor guy from Baraboo was being berated for living “in that city with the (expletive) clowns” and the bride in a bachelorette party got ripped on for using a “penis sipper cup,” we remained unscathed.
Also, when Pat’s “friends” arrived with the other two tickets, it turned out to be our congressman and his wife. Looking at that table, I felt like the answer to a game of “Which one of these is not like the other?”
At the end of the night, where I laughed until I hurt, the congressman picked up the check for us. Pat and I walked out together, reliving some of the better bits from the comics as people were still trying to get a moment of her time. I got to feel like a big shot for a moment simply by being in Pat’s general vicinity.
Pat was probably the most perceptive reporter I’ve ever been near, but that night she made clear she also was an extremely perceptive human being with wide streak of humanity and empathy to match. She could have asked a hundred other people to take that ticket or just decided to give the pair away and stay home that night. Instead, she used it in a way that still resonates for me.
She saw I was broken and she took the opportunity to salve my soul.
Contrary to what you might believe based on the word count, I had trouble trying to write this. My memories and stories with Pat happened years or decades ago, but to refer to her in a past tense felt almost shameful to me.
Pat isn’t a “was.” She is an “is.” And no matter what happens going forward, she will continue to be one.
That’s what happens when you spend your life making things better for people through your work, your craft and your sheer force of will. The lives Pat continues to influence are like seeds planted in premium soil, growing strong because of her. I know that, because I like to think I’m one of them.
It’s never too late to tell people how much they matter, so that’s what I’ve tried to do here. I’ve flailed about a bit and probably overwritten in spots because Pat matters so much more than my skills can accurately explain.
As I said, it’s really hard working in the master’s craft.
But I hope Pat knows I love her dearly and will be thinking of her always.