Steamboat humanitarian Mayling Simpson recognized by Longwood University
April 9, 2017
Steamboat Springs — As a child, Mayling Simpson and her family moved into a Reynoldsburg, Ohio, home that was once part of the Underground Railroad.
The house was left full of antiques and possessions from the previous owner, including shelves of abolitionist literature that fascinated Simpson,then only about 9 years old.
Simpson picked up a first edition of "My Bondage and My Freedom," by Fredrick Douglass, an 1855 autobiographical slave narrative.
"It is the most readable and enchanting," said Simpson, now 70, holding the same book in her Old Town Steamboat Springs home. "I think it kind of started there."
Simpson was referring to the moment she had the first feelings that would later shaped her life as a humanitarian, working for the underprivileged and poor around the world.
Now retired, Simpson spent her 40-year career living fulltime in eight countries, primarily in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe, pursuing humanitarian efforts with the World Health Organization, United Nations Development Programme and Catholic Relief Services.
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In late March, Simpson was awarded the Jabez Lamar Monroe Curry Humanitarian Award from her alma mater, Longwood University in Virginia, for her lifetime of humanitarian work.
Looking back, Simpson said she never thought of herself as a humanitarian, and she's humbled by the award.
"I thought of it as social justice and public health," Simpson said. "My interest was in making the world a better place."
Simpson said she remembers one of her earliest acts advocating for another person at the Virginia high school she attended during the race riots.
"It was a racially charged environment, and I was sympathetic to the blacks," Simpson said.
In 1962, Simpson's 2,000-student white school integrated by bringing in six black students.
In science class, Simpson was the first and only student to volunteer to partner with one of the black girls new to the school.
"She saved my life in chemistry," Simpson said. "She was so smart."
In college, Simpson chose to pursue medical anthropology, merging her interests in biology, medicine and health, and began her career by working to improve water and sanitation systems around the world.
Simpson also spent years working to educate the poor about personal hygiene and how to prevent malaria, HIV and AIDS, sometimes in places where most people were illiterate.
"It was very personally rewarding if I made a difference," said Simpson, who moved with her husband, Paul Hebert, and children to Steamboat Springs for the first time in 1985, and stayed off-and-on in the city before returning fulltime to retire in 2011.
Simpson said she often considers that, while she was born into a wealthy society and to parents who valued education, most people around the world aren't as fortunate.
"Our births are a roll of the dice," Simpson said. "I won the lottery when I was born, but an awful lot of people lose that lottery."