Originally published in Points West magazine
The Center of the West & Al
By Marguerite House
I walked into the Irma Hotel one Saturday morning with my grubs on, my cowboy boots scuffing, and my hat pulled over my eyes—playing it cool.
As I was paying my bill, a guy walked up to me and asked: “Anybody ever tell you that you look a lot like Al Simpson?”
“Yeah, they do,” I replied.
“Makes you kinda mad, don’t it?” he said as he walked away.
For years, the Buffalo Bill Center of the West has enjoyed the humor of one of Cody, Wyoming’s, favorite sons and one of the Center’s best supporters, Al Simpson. Throughout its Centennial year, the Buffalo Bill Center of the West has pause to toast the work of a legion of supporters whose efforts brought the Center to the prominence it enjoys today. The Simpson family was there from the start:
Getting on Board
“As our Native American friends and colleagues say, ‘Life is a great circle.’ This event is a closure of that circle.”
With these words—referring to his family’s long association with the Buffalo Bill Memorial Association, including his father’s tenure as board chairman—the Honorable Alan K. Simpson, former three-term U.S. Senator from Wyoming, accepted his appointment as Chairman of the Center’s Board of Trustees on September 26, 1997.
“It’s a tremendous honor, and I take it very seriously,” Al continued. “This is a special place, and you have tendered me a special office. Iheartily accept the challenge, and I am at a point in life, as is Ann, to give it our earnest best.”
Al likes to say that Executive Director Margaret “Peg” Coe hand-picked him to be her successor. “She asked me if I planned to run for Congress again, and when I said I wasn’t, she said she had another job for me.”
As he assumed the board chairmanship, Al talked about the makeup of those who have served—and continue to serve—the Buffalo Bill Memorial Association. “This is an extraordinary board…that’s not about chemistry, but about caring, respect, and affection for each other. This is an unbelievable gathering of humans: steady, wise, articulate, well read, creative, bright, witty, pesky as hell, opinionated, successful, ornery people, but all of us, each and every one, is deeply committed to a place we all love and are so proud of. For this, my colleagues, is hallowed ground.”
During good times and bad, Al suggests that the Buffalo Bill Memorial Association was protected by some magical force. “That force was the people who worked their hearts out when there was no glory in working around this place. There was no place like this; there was no concept of a temple like this in the Athens of the West… There’s a heritage in this place of leadership, guts, and vision.”
An interview with Al
Poet Emily Dickinson once wrote, “My friends are my estate.”
For the staff, volunteers, and board members of the Buffalo Bill Center of West, its estate is indeed vast and far-reaching. It counts as its friends, folks who number in the thousands, are found all over the world, and are devotees of the American West.
And about no one are Dickinson’s words truer than with one of the Center’s best friends, Al Simpson. At the time of his retirement from his chairmanship of the Buffalo Bill Memorial Association’s Board of Trustees in 2011, this native son reflected on his tenure.
Biggest highlight as trustee chairman
The biggest highlight for me in working with the Center is the honor of carrying on a family legacy. In the spring of 1917, just a few weeks after the death of Col. William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody on January 10 of that year, my grandmother, Margaret L. “Nanny” Simpson, and some chums—all friends of the colonel—met on the porch of the Irma Hotel to determine how best to honor the colonel’s memory. That’s when the Buffalo Bill Memorial Association was born. Both of my grandparents knew Louisa (Mrs. Cody) and Bill since Granddad was Bill’s lawyer for a time, and Nanny tended the grandparents of our own Trustee Bill Garlow.
Ever since I was very young, the Buffalo Bill Memorial Association has been part of my life. I remember my mom (Lorna) taking Pete and me over to the old museum—now the Cody Country Chamber of Commerce and the Art League. Mary Jester Allen, curator and Buffalo Bill’s niece, asked Mom to play the piano for “eastern guests” in an effort to try and impress them! Mom played the piano; they’d have tea; and Pete and I had a look around the cases of artifacts. It was loads of fun for two young boys to see these great things.
My dad, Milward, served as Chairman of the Board of Trustees from July 2, 1966 through September 14, 1973, and then he was appointed Chairman Emeritus from through 1984. Now, son Colin is serving on the Board of Trustees and brother Pete has done some consulting work for the Center. Yes, the Simpsons have a long history with the Buffalo Bill Memorial Association.
One of my favorite artifacts is the Unhaltered Packhorse painted by Frederic Remington in 1899 and sent to George Beck (one of the City of Cody’s founding fathers) in 1908. My dad Milward bought it at the George Beck estate sale for $500 after Beck’s death in 1943. On the back of it was a note from Remington to Beck; what a great memento! Pete and I, and our families, were happy to give it to the Center in 1998.
I also love the Scout statue, which we used to call the “the monument.” Of course, the whole area around it was vacant back in the 1930s. As kids, we’d hunt arrowheads around it; we’d pack a lunch and have a grand ol’ time.
The Remington Studio, a gift of the Coe Foundation, is fantastic, and all the W.R. Leigh paintings have such special meaning since Leigh was actually in this area. His Buffalo Drive is amazing! I like W.H.D Koerner’s Madonna of the Prairie, and any Remington in there is a thrill!
Al, the curator
If I were a curator, I suppose I’d want to work in the Whitney Gallery. I don’t have a huge art collection, so I appreciate galleries where I can see fine art. What a wonderful job to be surrounded by those artists that I’ve come to like so well! As young married folks, Ann and I didn’t have the money to collect art. When I was in the army, we’d save all our leave and travel to Paris, London, Italy, and the like. Through the years of observing art, I discovered the thrill of being able to identify the masters! I’m not a connoisseur by any means, but seeing masterworks is truly a joy.
One of the greatest acquisitions since I’ve been a trustee has to be Custer’s Last Stand by Edgar Samuel Paxson—a deal that was akin to the midnight ride of Paul Revere! Director Harold McCracken found out that Paxson’s heirs had offered the painting to the state of Montana who was waffling on the price. So, Harold and Ernie Goppert Sr. took a truck with some padding and several thousand dollars, and showed up to pick up the painting! Thankfully, the owners agreed to sell. McCracken was a packrat—why, he even approached Mrs. Belden at her husband’s funeral [Charles Belden, noted western photographer] about acquiring his silver plates!”
This is a case where people stepped forward with lots of guts, lots of luck, and lots of passion to accomplish extraordinary things here at the Center—and they continue to do that today.
And what is the Buffalo Bill Center’s greatest strength? Without a doubt, it’s the collections and the way they’re properly presented and put to the public, and rotated when necessary. The Dyck collection [The Paul Dyck Plains Indian Buffalo Culture Collection] outshines anything in America; it is a true pre-reservation bonanza. Now that’s strength.
The day we broke ground for the Plains Indian Museum has to be one of my most memorable experiences at the Center—a day of unbelievable description, a real goose-pimpler. Joe Medicine Crow was there and Red Horn, both original members of Plains Indian Museum advisory board, and it was a still, magical Indian summer day with cobwebs floating through the air like lace. We dedicated the spot by digging a hole and putting cedar pieces in the ground that I later retrieved—but I made sure it was okay with Joe.
One of the many things I am so very proud of is how excited our visitors are as they enjoy the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. When I wander through the galleries on a busy summer day, or even on a slow winter day, and I see families gather around, expressing their fascination with these exhibits and being captivated by the stories they are seeing and hearing, it truly makes all our efforts worthwhile.”
And that Simpson passion for the American West in general—and the Center of the West in particular—continues today with Al’s son Colin joining him on the Center’s Board of Trustees, his brother Pete serving on the McCracken Research Library Advisory Board, and daughter Sue Simpson-Gallagher working alongside fellow advisors on the Whitney Western Art Museum Advisory Board. Our thanks to this extraordinary family who is carrying the Buffalo Bill Center of the West into its next one hundred years.
Long Live the Wild West!