George Simpson Jr., 'brains' behind RTP's early development, dies

He linked universities to research industries

dranii@newsobserver.comDecember 18, 2012 

George L. Simpson

George L. Simpson Jr., who played a key role in the creation and early development of Research Triangle Park before becoming chancellor of the University System of Georgia, died Thursday after a lengthy illness.

Simpson, 91, of Raleigh, was the first executive director of what is now the Research Triangle Foundation.

“What stands out as George’s legacy is that he was – really I think he was the first one anywhere – who figured out how to build multiple relationships between what happens at research parks and what happens at universities,” said Bob Geolas, the foundation’s current president and CEO. “Thinking through how those relationships bring value, both to industry and to universities, and to create that very collaborative, win-win environment, he created that.”

“And now,” Geolas added, “every research park in the world tries to follow that model.”

Simpson was a sociologist on the faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill in 1956 when he was tapped to be the executive director of the Research Triangle Committee, which was formed to create a research center that would use the allure of the region’s major research universities – Duke, N.C. State and UNC-Chapel Hill – to attract industry. It also was instrumental in creating the Research Triangle Institute, now known as RTI.

Simpson was recommended for the post by William Friday, who at the time was acting president of the University of North Carolina.

“I just never had any question about it,” Friday is quoted as saying in a history of RTP commissioned by the Research Triangle Foundation. “I didn’t even think about anybody else.”

Simpson’s mandate was to devise a plan for developing the park.

“I would say he was the brains behind the early development of it,” Elizabeth J. Aycock, who was Simpson’s office manager and later became corporate secretary and treasurer of the foundation, told The News & Observer in a 1989 interview. “In the early days of the development of the Triangle ... we had not recognized the universities as a key to economic development. And George Simpson was a person who could get persons of diverse backgrounds to work together for the good of the state.”

But you would never hear the humble Simpson, who was a strong believer in team effort, say anything like that.

“He was a man of great abilities and accomplishments, but if you sat here with him, you wouldn’t hear the first word about it,” said his son, George L. Simpson III of Raleigh. “He would be mortified if he was getting more credit than he thought he deserved.”

To help recruit industry to the park, Simpson assembled what was once described as “one of the most unusual teams of traveling salesmen ever seen in businesses offices” – a team of professors from Duke, N.C. State and UNC.

Overcoming concerns

It wasn’t an easy sell at the outset.

“There were concerns about the integration problems in those years and concerns about the general cultural situation in the South,” Simpson said in a video created to commemorate RTP’s 50th anniversary.

Although Simpson helped lay the groundwork for what became a world-famous job engine, he departed before RTP became a runaway success. In 1962 he moved to Washington to work at NASA, where he was assistant deputy administrator for public affairs and later was assistant deputy administrator for technology utilization and policy planning.

Today the 7,000-acre park is the site of 170 companies with about 39,000 employees, plus an estimated 10,000 contractors.

Simpson became chancellor of Georgia’s university system in July 1965, a position he held until 1979. During his tenure, according to the Simpson family, enrollment and the number of schools in the system expanded dramatically.

Simpson was born in Concord, N.C., on Oct. 27, 1921. He graduated high school at the age of 14, according to a 1956 “Tar Heel of the Week” profile that appeared in The N&O, and later received bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. degrees in sociology from UNC. He also received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from UNC in 1969.

During World War II, he served as a gunnery officer on a Navy destroyer, the U.S.S. Ordronaux.

Simpson is survived by his wife of 70 years, Louise Simpson of Raleigh; his son George L. Simpson III and wife, Nancy, of Raleigh; son Joe H. Simpson and wife, Melissa, of Raleigh; and numerous grandchildren and great grandchildren.

Ranii: 919-829-4877

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