David Simpkins would tell this story every year to a group of struggling junior high school kids in Sauk Centre.
When he was in eighth grade, he told them, he failed his reading test — he was reading at a second-grade level. Every day after that, he had to walk from the high school across the athletic fields to the elementary school on the other side to take reading lessons.
He started to read everything he could get his hands on, and one rainy day the librarian found him on the floor of the local library surrounded by books. She didn’t yell at him. She just gave him a library card and became the first of the many mentors who helped him become one of rural Minnesota’s best-known journalists — a columnist, photographer, editor and eventually publisher of many small-town newspapers and other publications.
Simpkins died Feb. 23 at age 70 on his farm in Vining, Minn. — the same one his grandparents once owned and where he spent many summers in his youth.
Simpkins’ love of Minnesota small towns and the people who lived in them provided his purpose in life — both as a newspaper man and as a community activist, friends said.
It began with his experience on his grandparents’ farm, said Linda Simpkins, his wife.
“He loved all the Norwegian bachelor farmers, who were very unsophisticated,” she said. “Dave managed to retain that purity of heart and simplicity, yet went on to master many things.”
Simpkins was born in Minneapolis and grew up in Wayzata. He joined the Army, and the GI Bill paid his way through journalism school at the University of Minnesota, where he recruited a professor as another mentor.
His first job was at the Albany Enterprise, and before long he was publisher of the Grant County Herald. In 1988 he became the owner and editor of the Sauk Centre Herald, and writer of a column called unCommon Ground.
“Nobody was anonymous,” in a small town, said Linda Simpkins.
“It’s where everybody mattered to everybody else. I think he saw it as a place where he could do the most good and be the most himself.”
In the following years Simpkins extended that belief to publications he owned with partners, including the Melrose Beacon, Albany Enterprise, Sauk Rapids Herald, Benton County News, Star Shopper, Classy Canary, Minnesota Trails and Country Acres.
He was among the first publishers to bring electronic printing and publishing to rural Minnesota, and he was instrumental in bringing internet service to Sauk Centre.
He was passionate about another small town writer, Sinclair Lewis, gave tours of the author’s childhood home and was at work on a book about Lewis when he died.
Simpkins was mourned by many people who wrote about their memories of him on the Sauk Centre Herald’s Facebook page.
“Dave was always interested in learning something new,” said his friend and fellow publisher John Stone.
“He believed that everybody had a story to tell and every person’s story was equally important,” said his friend and partner Bryan Zollman.
“He emphatically believed that everyone in a small town should get their picture in the paper at least once (not including their obituary).”