U.S. Senator Paul Simon

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Paul Simon

U.S. Senator Paul Simon - Institute Founder (1928 - 2003)

Paul Simon was an iconic American leader for more than four decades. He served with distinction in the Illinois House of Representatives, the Illinois Senate, as lieutenant governor, and in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate.

With his horn-rimmed glasses, bowties, and deep voice, Paul Simon was a Prairie State original. He was respected for his intellect, candor, curiosity, independence, and ability to anticipate future challenges. He had wide-ranging interests and wrote prolifically, publishing 22 books and thousands of newspaper columns. He was idealistic and practical, kindhearted and toughminded. He was one of the most successful politicians in Illinois history. 

“He was, beyond question, one of the most remarkable public servants I ever knew,” former President Bill Clinton said in a tribute to Paul Simon. “He was a reformer without sanctimony; an idealist without naïveté; a realist without cynicism. He was a fiscal conservative who thought we, not our grandchildren, should pay to advance social justice and equality of opportunity. He was a serious man who could laugh at himself.”

 “Paul Simon is everything that a politician should be,” his mentor Senator Paul Douglas once said.  “I never served with anybody else who voted his conscience every time,” observed his former colleague, Senator Dale Bumpers.

Simon was born November 29, 1928, in Eugene, Oregon. He attended the University of Oregon and Dana College in Blair, Nebraska. At the age of 19, Simon became the nation's youngest editor-publisher when he accepted a local Lions Club challenge to save the Troy Tribune in Troy, Illinois, near St. Louis. He built a chain of more than a dozen newspapers in southern and central Illinois, which he sold in 1966 so he could devote himself to public service and writing.

He was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives in 1954 and the state Senate in 1962. He was elected lieutenant governor in 1968 but was defeated in his 1972 bid to become the Democratic nominee for governor.

During an interlude from elective office, Simon launched the public affairs reporting program at Sangamon State University in Springfield, Illinois (now the University of Illinois at Springfield), and lectured during the 1972-73 academic year at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Simon was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1974 and served Illinois' 22nd and 24th Congressional Districts for 10 years. He upset three-term Republican incumbent Charles Percy in 1984 to win election to the U.S. Senate. He unsuccessfully sought the 1988 Democratic nomination for president, but earned national praise for his idealism and optimism. He was re-elected to the U.S. Senate in 1990 by defeating Congresswoman Lynn Martin by nearly a million votes — the largest plurality of any contested candidate for senator or governor of either party that year.

In Congress, Simon worked on many issues: hunger, literacy, water resources, public education, language instruction, student loans, prison reform, access for those with disabilities, jobs, balanced budgets, and national service.

During his years as a public official, Paul Simon was respected for his exceptional constituent service. As a senator, Simon held more than 600 town meetings throughout Illinois, more than any senator in the state's history. For 40 consecutive years — longer than any other federal officeholder — Simon released an annual detailed financial disclosure report for himself and his wife.

After retiring from the U.S. Senate in 1997, Simon created the Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University and served as its director until his death in 2003. Simon promised the Institute would "find new ways of solving some very old problems” and under his leadership it tackled issues such as Social Security, campaign finance, and mental health in prisons. He was also a professor at SIU where he taught classes in political science, history, and journalism. After his passing, the Institute was renamed the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute.

In 1960, Paul Simon married Jeanne Hurley of Wilmette, whom he met while both served in the Illinois House of Representatives. Jeanne Simon died in February, 2000. They had two children, Sheila and Martin, three granddaughters, Reilly, Corey Jeanne, and Brennan, and one grandson, Nicholas. In May 2001, he married Patricia Derge, the widow of former SIU President David Derge, who died in 1996. Patti Simon has two children, Jennie and Bill.

Simon’s public career was celebrated for its candor, courage, and optimism. His commitment to the future was evident when he announced his bid for the presidency in May of 1987: “You and I are on this planet but a short time. Let us seize this time and opportunity to build a better tomorrow so that generations to come will look back on us and say, ‘These were people of uncommon compassion and vision and courage.’”