No matter whether he was on the basketball court or in the courtrooms of the Charlotte County Justice Center, Rich Simpson brought his all to everything he did, his friends and family said.
“He wasn’t the warmest and fuzziest guy until you got a chance to know him, and then you realized all of his intentions were very good, and he wanted nothing but the best for people, and nothing but the best from people,” said local attorney Charles Boyle. “Part of our ongoing conversation for the last 15 years was Rich’s inability to understand why everybody else in the world didn’t want to give 100 percent.”
Simpson, 61, passed away Monday after a battle with esophageal cancer. Throughout his career, he was a reporter, an editor, and a prosecutor.
Born in California, Simpson’s wife, Kathleen, said he was “a surfer boy.” This summer, the family took a trip out to see his hometown, and he showed them the house he grew up in and the beach where he surfed.
“He lived for the next wave,” she said. “He had long blond curly hair, blondish red. He would put his surfboard on his bicycle and go to the beach before school to surf.”
Later on, Simpson’s newspaper career took him to Montana and later Florida, where he worked for Sun Coast Media Group.
“One of the things Rich and I always laughed about was during his initial interview here he was telling me about his old boss and said, ‘He was about your age,’ and proceeded to tell me that his old boss was about 15 years older than I was at the time,” said Executive Editor Jim Gouvellis. “I hired him anyway, and was always glad that I did. Rich was an honest and hardworking reporter and editor. He cared about our county and the city. He will be missed.”
When Simpson’s son, Christopher, went to kindergarten, Simpson also went back to school — to get a law degree.
He started working at the State Attorney’s Office for the 20th Judicial Circuit in Charlotte County in 2001 and spent the majority of his time in the Juvenile Unit.
Judge Donald Mason, who was once Simpson’s supervisor, said he liked him from the first day they met.
“Rich was always well respected by his peers and members of the local bar and had a reputation of being fair, understanding, and pragmatic,” he said. “One would be hard pressed to find anyone who didn’t feel they were fairly treated by Rich.”
“He was a hard worker, dedicated to this office, always even-tempered, just a genuine person with a wealth of knowledge and advice on being a prosecutor and the criminal system,” said Assistant State Attorney Jennifer Garczewski. “He was somebody we could always count on and rely on, just a great person.”
Garcewzski shared a wall with Simpson, who was in the office next to hers, and said he’d always make her laugh as they exchanged stories about the weekend.
“We feel like a family here at the State Attorney’s Office, and he was a big part of that family, an uncle who always has some advice or words of knowledge,” she said.
Simpson was perhaps known best in the community for the way he gave back through his love of basketball, both as a youth coach and a referee.
“The thing about Rich is that whether we were doing a state final game or a middle school game, he walked on the court with the same attitude,” Boyle said. “That was that game meant the world to the players, the coaches, and their parents, so he was going to give that game the same amount of effort, which was 100 percent.”
Jesus Hevia, another attorney who coached with Simpson, said Simpson cared more about the kids than about winning the games.
“When you’re a youth coach, there’s usually a draft where you pick your kids,” said Jesus Hevia. “Not too long ago I had a draft with Rich, and there was one player way better than all the other kids. When it came time for the draft, Rich did not take that person. He took another player. I asked him why and he said, ‘Well, he’s already a really good player. I think we can develop this other player and make him better.’ He was more concerned about the children than he really was about winning.”
Christopher remembers his father’s love for basketball as a way they could connect throughout the years.
“I think for him it was about trying to give back to the kids,” he said.
Christopher said his dad’s siblings came down for his last days and they all have the same instinct to give back to their communities.
“They’re all built the same way,” he said. “It’s like it’s nothing — oh yeah, I go out and volunteer. To them it’s nothing. It’s what they’re supposed to do.”