Skip to main content
You are the owner of this article.
You have permission to edit this article.
Pat Simms, longtime Wisconsin State Journal reporter, dead at 75

Pat Simms, longtime Wisconsin State Journal reporter, dead at 75

  • 0
Pat Simms

Pat Simms at her desk in the Wisconsin State Journal newsroom in 2009.

The details are fuzzy after so many years, but as Cliff Behnke remembers, Wisconsin State Journal reporter Patricia Simms was sent one day to cover a supposedly “secret” meeting at the Capitol.

“She strode into the meeting, told them the whole thing was open to the public and sent her notebook around the room with instructions for all the participants to write down their names and phone numbers in case she wanted to contact them later for the story.”

“They complied,” said Behnke, Simms’ former colleague and boss. “Talk about kicking ass and taking names.”

Pat Simms

Amiable yet "nosy as hell," Simms was adept at prying information out of recalcitrant sources, colleagues said. “Watching Pat work was an education,” fellow State Journal reporter Barry Adams said.

Mention Simms’ name to just about any journalist or power broker active in Madison over the last half-century, and they’re likely to have a story about the veteran reporter who succumbed to cancer Monday at the age of 75 after 42 years covering nearly every beat in local and state government.

“She loved gossip and she loved getting the inside dope on everything. ... She was just so competitive. She hated being scooped,” said Ron Seely, who spent more than 30 years working with Simms and called her “just nosy as hell.”

‘You had to get the story’

Simms, a native of Buffalo, New York, joined the State Journal in 1969 after graduating from Daemen College in 1966 and then Northwestern University’s prestigious Medill School of Journalism three years later.

Her first byline in the newspaper where she would spend her entire reporting career was a July 3, 1969, story about the effects a brewery strike was having on the availability of beer at Madison taverns and liquor stores. Her last came nearly 50 years later, as she continued to freelance for the paper after retiring in 2011.

In between, she covered some of the biggest local and national stories of her era, from the 1970 bombing of UW-Madison’s Sterling Hall to the Act 10 protests at the state Capitol in 2011.

In an interview shortly before her death, Simms said that of the thousands of stories she wrote, the ones that stood out the most “are the ones that have murder and mayhem because they were memorable and the outcomes were memorable.”

“And then there were the investigations where you knew something was there and getting to it was seemingly overwhelming. You had to get the story. So you nibbled around it and you nibbled around it and talked to people and sometimes people would give you a tip and you would follow that up,” Simms said. “Part of it was really just the fight to get the story.”

As a state government reporter, her coverage spanned the administrations of five former governors: Pat Lucey, Martin Schreiber, Lee Dreyfus, Tony Earl and Tommy Thompson.

“Tough but fair, and always seeking the truth,” is how Thompson described her. Earl called her “very knowledgeable and very hard-working.”

From 1989 to 1998, Simms penned the “Snoop” column for the newspaper, a quick-hit collection of gossip, insider news and watchdog reporting that relied on Simms’ particular ability to cultivate and get information from sources.

“It was human, readable, humorous and biting, sometimes all within the same column,” said Tom Still, a former colleague and now president of the Wisconsin Technology Council.

In the last decade-plus of her career, she covered business and health beats and was the reporter tapped to launch the State Journal’s “SOS” consumer-advocacy column, which seeks to expose and correct problems experienced by State Journal readers and runs to this day.

As newspapers cultivated their online presence, she was one of the first reporters to start shooting video, telling the State Journal upon her retirement in 2011 that “I never thought I had a choice. ... If you want to keep your edges sharp, you have to keep up.”

A demanding pioneer

Simms entered journalism at a time when newsrooms were dominated by men, but colleagues didn’t remember her mentioning the discrimination or doubts she sometimes faced because of her gender. Mostly they remember a reporter who got what she wanted.

“She demanded good assignments and got them,” said former colleague Bill Wineke. “She demanded pay raises and got them. She took those assignments and ran with them and before long, others followed and we took her pioneer status for granted.”

She didn’t win all those battles. In 1972, when Karleton Armstrong, one of the suspects in the Sterling Hall bombing, was arrested in Toronto, Simms assumed she would be hopping a plane to cover his extradition hearing. But the assignment went to a male reporter because management said it “didn’t want me traveling alone,” Simms recalled last month.

“That would never happen now,” Simms said. “But it was a different time.”

When she was pregnant with a daughter in 1973, she was the first woman in journalism in the state of Wisconsin to demand, and get, maternity leave, her daughter, Sara Lalander said. She was granted maternity leave again after becoming pregnant with her son, Joe, in 1974.

“I think the editor at the time thought she was going to quit” and stay home with the children, Lalander said.

Pat Simms

Pat Simms, top center, joins other journalists covering a press conference with U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin at the state Capitol in 2005.

A mentor and confidante

Despite her sometimes tough exterior, Simms was well known among family, colleagues and friends as the person to call for help with problems both personal and work-related, arrange a wedding or baby shower for a colleague or coo over coworkers’ new babies. She adored her six grandchildren.

Jonnel Licari, who worked at the paper in the 1990s, called her “a mentor, a confidante, a second mom, an endless resource, a partner in crime, a savior, a shoulder to cry on and one of the best laughs ever to share.”

“Not only did she share her wisdom with me as a younger reporter nearly 30 years ago, but we bared our souls to each other during some shared difficult times,” she said.

Seely remembered how affected Simms was when his 11-year-old daughter died in 1991 and how she helped him mourn the loss. After he and his wife adopted a child from China, Simms broke down in tears the first time he brought her into the office.

Lalander said her mother’s fearlessness and desire to better her community were long-standing.

Before starting her journalism career, she worked with families in the Chicago public housing projects as a volunteer with the federal VISTA volunteer program. For years at the end of her career, she helped prepare inmates at Oregon Correctional Center for their high school equivalency exams.

In retirement, she taught writing at Madison Area Technical College and Edgewood College, where she served as the student newspaper’s faculty adviser.

“Pat is famous for approaching students at the college she didn’t know but who looked like they would be good journalists and shepherding them to a slot on the student publication,” said Ellen Foley, a former State Journal editor. “She rebuilt that part of Edgewood College.”

Simms’ former colleague and current State Journal reporter Barry Adams recalled her humanity in the midst of even the most horrifying of stories, like the time a disturbed man was shot and killed by police in front of terrified preschoolers after he attacked a teacher at Madison’s Red Caboose child care center in 2004.

The incident, Simms wrote at the time, “turned teachers into heroes, forced children to grow up a little too fast, and ended the life of a man who apparently wanted to die.”

“Watching Pat work was an education,” Adams said. “She could be incredibly sweet but never appeared intimidated and had no fear of holding the powerful accountable.”

Simms said that earlier in her career, she had dreams of possibly moving on to bigger newspapers. But family kept her rooted in Madison.

“It was a great place to raise a family,” said Simms, who lived her final few years in a condominium on Madison’s Far West Side. “I have had a happy life here and a wonderful career and met wonderful friends here. It turned out much happier than I deserved, but it was lovely.”

State Journal reporter Barry Adams contributed to this report.

A long, shared history: The Wisconsin State Journal's 175th anniversary series

  • 0

State Journal reporters no longer shine editors' shoes. They do on occasion volunteer to pet-sit an editor's chickens.

  • 0

“The columns of the Express will be open to the discussion of all fair and proper subjects which will have the tendency of promoting the publi…

  • 0

By the time the Civil War broke out in 1861, the Wisconsin State Journal had been publishing for more than 20 years. But nothing could prepare…

  • 0

The years just before and after the Civil War were difficult times for Madison. It failed to grow during the panic of 1857, when real estate v…

  • 0

The end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th saw times of transition for the Wisconsin State Journal and the University of Wisconsin.

  • 0

“I pledge to my city a more complete understanding of her problems, a more liberal conception of her limitations, … a more generous contributi…

  • 0

With World War I over, Madison and much of the rest of the nation turned its attention to a new battle: the fight over the proliferation of saloons.

  • 0

Madison and its interest in aviation were booming as the "Roaring Twenties" came to a close, with the Depression and world war looming.

  • 0

For those who lived through the fight over Monona Terrace in the early 1990s, Madison in the 1950s would have felt eerily familiar.

  • 0

The dawn of the 1960s brought with it the promise of change. But war on the other side of the world would soon eclipse all that.

top story
  • 0

"Zoos are a characteristic feature of parks in all large cities," the Wisconsin State Journal declared in 1911. "The zoo idea should be welcomed."

  • 0

After 70 years of use, the structure was showing its age. An 11-year, $141 million renovation restored the majestic building to its earlier grandeur.

  • 0

Fittingly, the last installment in our 175th anniversary series proves what goes around comes around.


Be the first to know

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


News Alerts

Badger Sports

Breaking News