Robert L. Simon
Professor of Philosophy (1968-2014)
Presented: Sept. 4, 2018, by Katheryn Doran, associate professor of philosophy
I’ve drawn what I have to say from many sources. Thank you, sources.
Robert L. Simon died peacefully at home on May 31, 2018, of pancreatic cancer. Bob was a deeply loved teacher, compassionate mentor, thoughtful, wide ranging, and incisive writer, respected coach, tenacious competitor — and fan — and loyal friend.
It says a lot about Bob that several colleagues wrote that while Bob was the kindest person around they urged me to highlight his superb work as a philosopher: his scholarship ranged deftly, responsibly, and insightfully across a host of issues united by ongoing concerns of great importance. And several other colleagues wrote that while certainly Bob’s professional record as a philosopher was stellar, they urged me to highlight the fact that he was the kindest of colleagues and friends, an important counterexample to the claim, (sadly) still widely held in the profession, that good philosophy must be brutally honest. In his work and in his life, Bob showed that while philosophy must be honest, it need not be brutal.
Bob was born on May 12, 1941, in Brooklyn, N.Y. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Lafayette College in 1963 and a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania in 1969. Bob was hired as assistant professor of philosophy at Hamilton in 1968, and he and his wife, Joy, moved to Clinton as newlyweds. An expert on the ethics of sport, his courses on political, social, medical, and legal philosophy affected the lives of thousands of students. His courses had wait lists a mile long.
Bob embodied the spirit of community excellence not only through his loving commitment to students, but also through his modesty, humor, and devotion to family, friends, and colleagues. Over the course of his nearly 50-year career at Hamilton, Bob held four endowed chairs, the last of which was the Walcott-Bartlett Professorship of Philosophy Emeritus, won five prestigious national fellowships, and received many awards from the College, most notably the Dean’s Scholarly Achievement Award, the Student Assembly’s Sidney J. Wertimer Award, the Alumni Association’s Distinguished Service Award, and the Samuel & Helen Lang Prize for Excellence in Teaching.
Indeed, Bob was a smart, delightful, and inspiring colleague from whom generations of people in the department saw the most important pedagogical virtues in action every day. He was crystal clear in reconstructing sophisticated arguments, open to and generous with critics of the positions he was defending, and happy to continue conversations with students and faculty alike after (and then again before) class.
So it came as no surprise that for the 2011 ceremony that marked the start of Hamilton’s Bicentennial, Bob was the person asked to deliver a “Why I Teach” talk, in which, true to form as a philosopher, he reframed the topic as a question.
An authority on sports ethics and the author of the signature text in the field, Fair Play: Sports, Values and Society, Bob was named one of the 100 Most Influential Sports Educators by the Institute of International Sport.
In 2016, in the first ever Journal of the Philosophy of Sports Festschrift, which was dedicated to Bob’s scholarship, the editor wrote: “I’m sure my fellow contributors would agree with me that no Festschrift or other tribute can adequately capture the remarkable influence that Bob Simon has had on our field. We have followed his lead on many issues; we have argued with him on others; we have proposed alternate answers. But most important of all, we have never ignored him.”
Through radio and television interviews, several op-ed articles in nationally syndicated newspapers, and in his articles and six books, Bob raised or responded to important public issues such as gender equity, comparable worth, moral judgment, and the legitimacy of the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sports. He was celebrated in many fields, and was elected president of the Philosophic Society for the Study of Sport, and inducted into the Kirkland Sports Hall of Fame.
From 1986 to 2000, Bob coached the Hamilton men’s golf team, which competed in the 1998 NCAA Division III National Championship, and was often nationally ranked. He also served many years as a rules official for the New York State Golf Association. Bob believed strongly that participation in sports and intellectual life go hand and hand.
In October 2017, President David Wippman announced that a new golf practice facility would be built and named in Bob’s honor. The Bell Ringer Award, the College’s highest alumni honor, was presented in his memory this past June.
Bob and Joy celebrated their 50th anniversary last year. They were singularly ardent fans of Clinton High School and Hamilton sporting events, and they were especially passionate about Hamilton’s women’s and men’s basketball teams, almost never missing home games and making it to most away games too. You know this if you ever went to any of our games or matches.
Bob loved spending time with his two sons, Bruce (valedictorian, Class of 1991) and Marc (Class of 1994), and their families with whom he and Joy shared an abiding love of both learning and sports. He cherished his time with his six grandchildren. He was a long-time supporter of the Kirkland Town Library, A Better Chance Program, and the Clinton Central School Foundation.
Truly, as Todd Franklin wrote to me: there’s no way to summarize the immense impact Bob has had on me (or us). He set the finest example of what it means to be a professor: he cared deeply, spoke respectfully, gave of himself generously, and never missed an opportunity to connect with and encourage students and faculty alike.
Russell Marcus wrote: Bob and Joy would come to our Hanukkah party with toys for the kids, and Bob would get down at their level and ask them questions, tell them jokes and stories, offer suggestions of sci-fi books to read, and play with them. Then he’d get up and talk with me about my work and my life, always listening carefully to whatever I was working on, and offering what can only be called wisdom on whatever we discussed. He knew pretty much all of the moves, pretty much all of the time. But he respected the students and heard their questions as they themselves saw them, as new and exciting, and he tried to figure out exactly how to show them a different way of thinking of the matter, a new perspective or approach that they could understand and embrace.
Bob and I had offices directly across from each other, by choice, in both our oldest and newest philosophy buildings, for a total of about 20 years. Though of course we often talked, we also used two devices to connect: first, the lure of my bowl of Hershey kisses which brought us together pretty much daily. And, in the olden days, I’d regularly stick on his door one of those pink WHILE YOU WERE OUT BLANK ______CALLED MESSAGE slips — remember those, some of you? — with the blank filled in with the name of the legendary UNC Basketball Coach Dean Smith, whom we both adored. For better or worse we never stopped thinking that same damn slip was funny! They always provided us with an opportunity to talk basketball, DI to DIII, and to trash talk — or what passed for trash talk from that gentlest of men — some of Smith’s rival coaches, from which we’d wander off into other conversational thickets, including, say, a funny story about my kid or one of his grandkids, or any number of our favorite philosophical topics like what kinds of cancer screening should be done routinely, who has the burden of proof in a disagreement, or whether professors have an obligation to be neutral in the classroom: all fair game.
Bob set the standard for scholarship, mentorship, and friendship. And for being a mensch.