SPARTANBURG, SC - John Wistar Simpson ’36, whose work as an engineer over four decades was instrumental in the development of nuclear energy for marine and space propulsion as well as electric power generation, died on Jan. 4, 2007 in Hilton Head, SC.
A native of Glenn Springs in Spartanburg County, Mr. Simpson graduated from high school at the height of the Great Depression. College seemed impossible, but after he and his father had a conversation with Dean A. Mason DuPré, it was agreed that he could defer his tuition payments and start classes anyway.
After a year at Wofford, Simpson received an appointment to the US Naval Academy. At Annapolis, he graduated with honors, but his vision deteriorated during his college years, and he was not offered a Navy commission.
Instead, he began graduate studies in engineering at the University of Pittsburgh and joined Westinghouse Electric Corp. in 1937. Mr. Simpson worked for the company from 1937 through 1977, retiring as president of Westinghouse Power Systems Co. Under his direction, Westinghouse became the world leader in nuclear energy.
In the early 1950s, Admiral Hyman Rickover (“father of the nuclear navy”) gave Mr. Simpson complete responsibility for the design and manufacture of power plant of the SSN Nautilus, the first nuclear-powered submarine. This project was quickly followed by development of the first nuclear power plant at Shippingport, PA, and by the successful test of the atomic-powered NERVA rocket engine.
In 1966, Mr. Simpson acquired his beachfront property in South Carolina, and he became a full-time resident in 1980s. He was a founding director of Sea Pines Associates, organizing the homeowners to purchase the resort thus averting its failure and bankruptcy. He was a member of the First Presbyterian Church of Hilton Head.
Mr. Simpson won numerous honors and prizes during his career, including the Henry DeWolf Smythe Nuclear Statesman Award, presented by the American Nuclear Society and the Nuclear Energy Institute. In early 1990s, he wrote Nuclear Power: From Underseas to Outerspace, a chronicle of the development of nuclear technologies and the people responsible for them.
Mr. Simpson was a former member of the Wofford Board of Trustees, and the college honored him with Doctor of Science degree in 1973.
In 1969, Mr. Simpson established an endowed scholarship fund at Wofford in honor of his brother, Carter Berkeley Simpson. Carter attended both Wofford and the US Naval Academy, where he earned a commission in the Marine Corps. He died in the Philippines during World War II.
Wofford now is a beneficiary of the John W. Simpson Charitable Remainder Trust that will be used to create and sustain an additional endowment fund to support John W. Simpson Scholarships.
Mr. Simpson is survived by four children, five grandchildren and two step-grandchildren.
View obituary in Hilton Head Island (SC) Packet
View column by David Lauderdale, Hilton Head Island (SC) Packet, Jan. 10, 2007
View 2004 profile in Hilton Head Island (SC) Packet