SMU mourns the death of Prof. Dennis Simon, founding member of the Tower Center for Political Studies and leader of SMU’s Civil Rights Pilgrimage
SMU Associate Professor of Political Science Dennis Simon died Sunday, Feb. 12, 2017 in Dallas after a long illness. An SMU faculty member since 1986, he was a recognized expert on the American presidency, national elections, women and the political glass ceiling, and the politics of change in the United States.
Passionate about his students and his work, he continued to teach and present lectures on the presidential elections to the SMU community through fall of 2016.
“Dennis Simon’s legacy at SMU will not be forgotten,” said SMU President R. Gerald Turner. “He was both a brilliant scholar and devoted teacher, talents he bridged with a sense of humor that never wavered. Dr. Simon invested his time, commitment and his passion for political science with his students, fellow scholars and the community. His influence will live on in the many lives he touched.”
The Texas House of Representatives “gaveled out” its regular session Tuesday, Feb. 14, in Simon’s memory on a motion by State Rep. Morgan Meyer. Services for Simon are pending.
Simon was quick to say that his proudest and most impactful work came in guiding since 2008 both undergraduate and graduate students on SMU’s annual Civil Rights Pilgrimage to historical sites across the south. The 7-8 day bus trip occurs during Spring Break every year, creating an immersive learning experience that “pilgrims” describe as life changing.
During Simon’s 31 years as an SMU faculty member, he received nearly every teaching award offered by the University, including the “M” Award, the Willis Tate Award and President’s Associate Award. In 2005 he received the Altshuler Distinguished Teaching Professor Award, given to just four professors each year for their commitment to student learning. Known for his mentorship and dedication to teaching, he used U.S. elections as a living laboratory, teaching his popular course, “Presidential Elections,” every four years.
Simon’s other teaching and research interests included presidential-congressional relations, public opinion, electoral behavior and research methodology. His research appeared in leading journals such as the American Political Science Review, American Journal of Political Science, and the Journal of Politics. He was the recipient of the Pi Sigma Alpha award given by the Southern Political Science Association for his study of national forces in state legislative elections, and twice the Miriam Irish award given by the Southern Political Science Association for his study (with Assoc. Prof. Barbara Palmer) of the emergence of women in U.S. electoral politics. His most recent book, with co-author Palmer, Women and Congressional Elections: A Century of Change (Lynne Reinner Publishers) was published in May of 2012. The book’s first edition was published in 2006.
Simon’s recent research projects included “The Perilous Experiment,” a historical and quantitative study tracing the evolution of popular and legislative leadership in the American presidency and “Southerners in the United States House of Representatives,” a history of electoral and ideological change in the South since 1930, supported by a grant awarded by the Dirksen Congressional Center. He earned his B.A. from Wittenberry University in Springfield, Ohio, and his M.A. and Ph.D. from the department of political science at Michigan State University. Before joining SMU, Simon was an assistant professor of political science at the University of Minnesota.
Simon was a founding member of SMU’s John Goodwin Tower Center for Political Studies, where he served as a member of the Tower Center Faculty Advisory Board and as a senior fellow. The Tower Center was created in 1992 to promote the study of politics and international affairs and stimulate an interest in ethical public service.
“He was a dedicated supporter of our center, serving us in a variety of ways,” said the Hon. Dan Branch, chair of the Tower Center Board of Directors and former member of the Texas House of Representatives. “Most of all, he was a devoted mentor to our students.”
Simon also joined the faculty of SMU’s Master of Liberal Studies (MLS) program when he arrived in in 1986, teaching courses such as “Politics and Film,” and “The American Presidency” to hundreds of graduate students in the predominantly evening program. He began teaching “The Politics and Legacies of the Civil Rights Movement,” to both MLS students and undergraduates in 2008, combining it with an existing trip organized through the SMU Chaplain’s Office to historic sites in civil rights history. Simon never tired of sharing with an audience the “power of place” he said came with combining a semester-long course with personal experiences shared at the sites of civil rights violence and struggle.
With his Chaplain’s Office partner, Ray Jordan, and student leaders chosen each year, the trip featured stops at sites Simon described as “ground-zero,” in the civil rights movement, such as Little Rock High School, the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s home in Montgomery. History came alive at each spot, thanks to Simon’s friendships with original participants he called “foot soldiers” in the civil rights movement, who shared their recollections with students, sometimes hopping aboard the bus to lead tours.
The class and trip, sponsored by the Embrey Human Rights Program and SMU’s Office of the Chaplain and Religious Life, are now a core requirement of SMU’s human rights undergraduate major and the human rights emphasis in SMU’s Master of Liberal Studies program. Each year students share their thoughts and memories of the trip on an online blog.
“I will always be thankful to Dr. Simon for showing us all what it looks like to not only celebrate the light, but to be the light in situations where it seems like the darkness might swallow us up,” said Michelle Anderson ’15, who served as student leader of the pilgrimage in 2015. “I’m missing our fearless leader already. Keep marching, pilgrims.” Anderson is pursuing a Ph.D. in media studies with a focus in transitional justice at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.
Simon also generously shared his expertise with the news media, serving as an expert on the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama, the impact of the John F. Kennedy assassination, the changing role of women in politics, and trends in presidential and mid-term elections. He regularly presented lectures to the community and served as a panel member at lecture series throughout the Dallas area.
“The qualities that made Dennis a fine person – intelligence, enthusiasm, and honesty – made him an extraordinary teacher and mentor to his students,” said Joe Kobylka, SMU associate professor of political science and Simon’s longtime friend. “His passion for studying American politics and change electrified his lectures and infused his students with his enthusiasm. When that happens, education ensues, and Dennis was a master educator. I learned from him, as a student and then a colleague. I will draw on those lessons daily.”