Morehead City's Bob Simpson advocated outdoors enjoyment for over 60 years -- from the archive

Bob and Mary Simpson
Bob and Mary Simpson Courtesy of Bob Simpson

Morehead City icon Bob Simpson died this week at 92. He was an advocate for the outdoors and a prolific outdoors writer. Former N&O outdoors editor Mike Zlotnicki wrote a profile of Simpson that was published on Feb. 14, 2008.

PELTIER CREEK Some central coast images are easy to recall -- the Cape Lookout Lighthouse, the wild horses of Shackleford Banks, the flare-bowed sportfishing boats.

Some are much less visible but no less relevant. Bob Simpson falls into that category. Many know him as a nature and outdoors correspondent for The News & Observer since the 1950s. But his presence has helped shape the coast.

A short list of his contributions includes: the Big Rock Blue Marlin Fishing Tournament, Cape Lookout National Seashore, the North Carolina Maritime Museum and the Skipper's Roster Memorial on the Morehead City waterfront.

Along the way, he has written a couple of books, lived on a boat for 20 years, floated his current home -- a military surplus building -- across Bogue Sound and restored Sylvia II, a 36-foot Core Sound fishing boat.

His home is unremarkable at first glance. A marine hazard buoy marks the driveway near the mouth of Peltier Creek. Huge live oaks shade most of the lot.

Inside, Simpson is seated in a sunroom, the only addition to his house. The sunroom is like the rest of the house -- cluttered and busy but not dirty.

Animal pelts, masks, fishing rods, oddities and instruments are everywhere. ("Along with a lot of spiderwebs," Simpson said.) A U.S. Navy sextant in a box dated 1745 sits about 5 feet from a laptop computer.

It's not often The News & Observer writes about correspondents, especially its own. But Simpson, 82, is different.

Welcome to Bob's World, home of the old and the new.

A native of Havana, N.D., Simpson came to North Carolina during World War II.

"I was in dive bombers," he said. "That was not a good way to make a living."

After the war, he "loaded up a Model A and moved to Morehead City." He was later called up to serve in the Korean War.

Once in Morehead City, Simpson and his wife, Mary, needed a place to stay. A 45-foot twin-engine cruiser was suggested by Headen "Bill" Ballou, founder of Capt. Bill's Waterfront Restaurant in Morehead City.

"Mary said, 'I'm game if you are,' and that became our home for the next 20 years," Simpson said.

They split time between North Carolina and Florida, where Simpson ran a charter boat for the University of Miami. ("Closest thing to real job I've ever had.") Mary Simpson passed away in May 2005.

Simpson says his formal training is "all kinds of half-[baked] education," consisting of course work (but no degrees) in journalism, marine science and engineering. Annual summer treks to his property in the Bitterroot Valley in southwest Montana helped broaden his outdoors perspective.

Simpson started freelance writing for boating and nautical periodicals in 1954 and later started writing a column for The News & Observer. His nature editorial appears at the bottom of the editorial page every Sunday.

"It's attuned to the changes of season, it's attuned to the passage of time," said Steve Ford, editorial page editor at The News & Observer. "He has an observant eye for the North Carolina natural scene."

Outdoors booster

In between his writing and photography, Simpson became a behind-the-scenes advocate for outdoors projects in Carteret County.

"He's a very quiet, self-effacing man," said Ruth Barbour, former editor of the Carteret County News-Times in Morehead City, as she recounted his involvement locally. "I don't know if he was a member of any civic clubs. He's not a joiner. He didn't get out and lead cheers and whip up a frenzy."

The Cape Lookout National Seashore was one project. Simpson testified about it at Senate hearings in Washington, D.C., as part of a Carteret County Wildlife Club and North Carolina Wildlife Federation contingent.

"There was not much local support," he said. "They wanted to build an all-seashore highway from Norfolk [Va.] to Myrtle Beach [S.C.]. We thought that was stupid. The initial plan the park service showed me was a campground and a marina every half mile."

Today, that seashore is much like it ever was.

The Big Rock Blue Marlin Fishing Tournament didn't turn out as much to Simpson's liking. Marlin had been caught off of Hatteras in the 1950s but not Morehead City. Simpson and group of anglers and businessmen dubbed "The Fabulous Fishermen" banded together to create some marlin interest.

"Morehead was a little two-bit country place," Simpson said. "We thought everyone would throw in $25 and give it to the first person to catch a blue marlin. Within a few days, Bill Olsen [and Raleigh angler Jimmy Croy] landed a blue marlin."

Simpson said that later every time a captain brought in a marlin, Simpson would haul a small cannon down to the waterfront and let the captain shoot it in recognition.

"That'd wake up the whole damn town, and they'd come down to see the marlin," he said.

Today, the Big Rock is one of the biggest, most lucrative fishing tournaments in the United States with a purse of more than $1.5 million in 2007.

"It strayed from my original intent, but there's nothing wrong with it," he said, shrugging. "The intent was to the working waterfront. ... It's gone from trying to help the working charter boatman to something for the moneyed class."

Gene Huntsman of Havelock has been Simpson's friend since 1970 when they met at the Carteret County Wildlife Club.

"He was always this goad, this sharp stick poking in people's eyes," said Huntsman, laughing. "He's got a way of looking at things upside down, backwards and right."

Sylvia: Labor of love

Despite the magnitude of some projects he has been associated with, Simpson might best be remembered for a boat.

Sylvia II has become sort of a trademark. She was a wreck when Simpson purchased her in 1976, mired in the muck of Bogue Sound off the Morehead City waterfront, the victim of storm surge and a pier piling.

"I never intended to buy her," Simpson said. "The guy offered her for $300. I figured her screw [propeller] was worth $300. She was also the prettiest boat I'd seen."

Simpson and some helpers took several days to move the boat closer to the dock, working with the tides to ease her in. A gaping hole was patched with a plastic table cloth and the boat run to a shipyard.

"A week or two later she was floating," Simpson said.

On this day, Sylvia was at Taylor Boat Works in Morehead City getting hauled out of the water for some body work and paint.

"She's getting ready for her birthday party. Don't ask me why I do it. I'm stupid," he said, as watched the work progress.

"Getting a little lipstick on her," said John McCallum, owner of Taylor Boat Works.

"We don't get many like her because there aren't that many," said McCallum, who has been working Sylvia for 23 years. "The '30s was the heyday -- towns like Atlantic, Sea Level and Marshallburg were building boats. The reason the wooden boats went out of favor was the amount of labor it took to build them."

The men stared at the rounded stern of Sylvia. Is the boat an unhealthy obsession?

"Yeah, but I don't know how to describe it," Simpson said. "It connects all the people I've met. I remember a lot of the old fishermen and whalers."

"I'd like to turn her over to a museum ... if they'd use it as a working boat to take kids out and if they'd maintain it. To me, she's a historic piece."

There's no shortage of Simpson tales, but Huntsman said one of his favorite stories involved Simpson, Carolina Power & Light (now Progress Energy) and an oak tree.

"They showed up at his house and told Bob they needed to remove some limbs from the live oak in the yard," Huntsman said. "Bob asked if there was any other way to do it. They said no. Bob told them to take the meter, the wires and the power pole. He said he'd rather have the tree than the electricity. They loaded up their truck and drove off. That sort of embodies the man."

The oak tree -- and Simpson -- still thrive on the shore of Bogue Sound.

Bob Simpson

  • BORN: Sept. 18, 1925 in Havana, N.D.

  • MILITARY SERVICE: Entered U.S. Marine Corps at age 17 in 1943; left the Corps in 1946; called back in 1951 for one year.

  • EDUCATION: Attended South Dakota State, University of Miami (Fla.).

  • MARITAL STATUS: Married former Marine Mary Keeney in 1947. She died in 2005.

  • EMPLOYMENT: Freelance writer, photographer, filmmaker, navigator and bombardier.

  • FUN FACT: Likes to brag he's never held a job.

  • FAVORITE FISH: "Where I am and what I'm doing. I love fishing; catching is not important to me."

  • ACCOLADES: April 2006, awarded The Order of the Long Leaf Pine, the highest civilian award in North Carolina