Obituary: Barclay Simpson, alum, business leader, philanthropist

UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks issued the following statement on the passing of the university’s dear and trusted friend:

The University of California, Berkeley, mourns the loss of Barclay Simpson, a larger-than-life figure in business, arts, government and philanthropy — and a passionate supporter of Cal. He passed away Saturday evening (Nov. 8) at the age of 93.

Barclay Simpson

Barclay Simpson (Photo courtesy of Simpson Strong-Tie)

Barc, as his friends and family knew him, stood enthusiastically for economic innovation and social progress, equity and access to education for young people, and excellence in diverse spheres from the arts to business to athletics.

Barclay Simpson loved Cal wholeheartedly.

He and his wife, Sharon, have left an indelible legacy across the campus. You see it from the Simpson Center for Student-Athlete High Performance, which is a game-changer for student-athletes, to the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive; and from undergraduate scholarships to the Haas School of Business and the University Library.

He was a major force in the initiative to replace BAM/PFA’s seismically challenged museum building on Bancroft Way. The new museum will open to the public in early 2016 in downtown Berkeley at the historic, former site of UC Press — yet another testimonial to the lasting impact of Barc and Sharon’s leadership and philanthropy.

He and Sharon also co-chaired The Campaign for Berkeley, which concluded a few months ago, raising $3.13 billion from more than 281,000 donors. In addition to his campaign work, Barc served two terms as board president at BAM/PFA and as a UC Berkeley Foundation trustee.

For Barc, the love affair with Cal can be traced to his childhood. His mother attended Berkeley and worked as a schoolteacher in Oakland. Growing up in Oakland during the Great Depression, he recalled sneaking over a fence to catch Cal football games for free as a boy. Cal was a major presence in his life already.

While a Berkeley student during World War II, he signed up as a U.S. Naval Air Corps pilot and deployed with his fellow “Flying Golden Bears” to the Pacific. The war and the demands of his business disrupted his studies, yet he maintained his connection to campus through the years and earned a B.S. degree in business administration in 1966.

“I’ve loved the school since I was a little kid, and that hasn’t changed at all,” he said earlier this year in a video for The Campaign for Berkeley. “I think supporting Cal is doing a great deal for society.”

Barc founded one of the world’s most successful firms, Simpson Manufacturing, which builds structural connectors (Simpson Strong-Ties) that are the industry standard.

Yet he was more than a successful entrepreneur. He was an advocate for equity and access — for employees at his plants, for young people from underserved communities in the Bay Area and for the general public. If you have ever taken BART to San Francisco International Airport, you are a beneficiary of his leadership; he almost single-handedly put together the deal that led to the transit extension to the airport when he served on the BART Board of Directors.

Barc and Sharon have supported Girls Inc. of Alameda County. This reflects their conviction that helping young women early in life will transform their lives and serve society in the long run. Among the many community organizations they have championed are the California Shakespeare Theater and the Oakland Museum of California.

At an event honoring him, he once paraphrased Martin Luther King Jr. by saying, “Don’t forget that the only thing that makes philanthropy necessary is social injustice.”

In 2006, he received the Chancellor’s Award in recognition of his many years of leadership and service to Berkeley and the UC Berkeley Foundation. The Haas School of Business also named him the Business Leader of the Year for 2005.

In 2013, he received the Berkeley Medal, the university’s highest honor, for his leadership and many contributions to society.

Over the decades, several university chancellors have had the privilege of working with Barc, and he developed lasting friendships with them. Chancellor Emeritus Robert J. Birgeneau had a particularly close relationship with Barc, and he put it best when he conferred the Berkeley Medal to him in 2013.

“Barc, in everything that you have achieved, you have enriched the lives of those around you — mind, body and spirit. You embody the very best of Berkeley, and our highest ideals of access, excellence and commitment to service.”

Barc is survived by his wife, Sharon, seven children, six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.