13 congregations: "I knew every girl by name" - Jean Simpson

Jean Simpson is beautiful. Age hasn’t dimmed that at all. She has a warm smile and kind eyes that you can tell don’t miss a trick. She seems like exactly like the kind of person for whom the phrase “a mind like a steel trap” was invented.

She went to UCLA at the age of 17 and graduated in English and speech with a minor in Spanish. You can easily imagine her walking back onto campus at nearly 80 and doing it all again without a problem. The semester before she graduated she married her husband, a 28-year-old convert to the church who she met as a blind date at the Green and Gold Ball. He’d already been in the service and had a Harvard MBA, and he was ready to settle down with charming Jean Cowan.

She laughs when she remembers the early years. “We started a family right away. In the first ten years of marriage we moved a lot. We either had a new baby or a new home.” They bounced from southern California to Tacoma, WA, Canton, OH and even Toronto as Brother Simpson was sent in to turn around the ailing divisions of different corporations. Finally, he decided he’d had enough of traveling and moving his family around, and the Simpsons moved permanently to Pasadena where Brother Simpson bought a small business. He built what would become a major aerospace parts manufacturer from its humble origins in a Quonset hut.

The Simpsons lived in Pasadena for 43 years. Jean served as the stake Young Women’s president and later as the stake Relief Society president. Her favorite calling in the church was working with the Young Women. At the time, her stake had thirteen wards. “I knew every one of them by name. I loved going to girls’ camp, loved the youth conferences, especially the testimony meetings. We had stake dances twice a month and I was at just about every single one of them.”

This proved to be an excellent foundation when she was asked to serve in the most unusual calling of her life: she oversaw the establishment and administration of all the California chapters of Lambda Delta Sigma, an LDS sorority. (The Church discontinued the sorority in 1993).

“It was an interesting calling. It was a calling you really didn’t have a job description for. I had to work with regional reps and stake presidents all over the state.” She would travel up and down the state visiting the stake leadership and teaching them what the sorority was about, then helping interested young women establish and run new chapters. “In every chapter we had girls who were the only LDS members in their families or girls who weren’t LDS but who wanted to be in a sorority that lined up more with their values than the Greek sororities did. Girls in every chapter joined the church. We saw lives changed and even saved through that program and the caring women who were their role models.”

Many of the women leaders from the state and local chapters that oversaw the sororities have gone on to several of the Church’s general leadership boards, and they have maintained their close relationships with each other, reuniting every January.  

Jean says of the experience, “You had to be a self-starter and independent.” When asked to reflect on how she felt she had developed those qualities in herself, she credits her upbringing. Her older brother, Richard Cowan, is blind. Much of her parents’ energy and attention was diverted to him, and he went on to graduate with a PhD from Stanford and teach at BYU for 53 years. But between helping her brother and often being left to do things on her own, she developed an independent spirit. She also was involved in a Greek sorority at UCLA and did a lot of things with the community. “It made me comfortable with working with people who weren’t members of the church. I also firmly believe when you are called to do a position and are set apart, it qualifies you to do that.” She stops and smiles, and this former stake YW and RS president confesses, “Gospel Doctrine made me stretch though when they called me to teach it in this ward.”

But all of Jean’s sorority experience and church callings have developed her into a leader, so she pushes herself. She explains her philosophy on leadership. “I’ve always held with leading by example. I’m a delegator. That’s how I believe you help the people you’re leading to become better. I like to help the people I'm leading become their best selves. Leading by example is what’s so striking about President Monson. He’s a consummate example of leading by example in reaching out to the one. Everyone has to figure out their strength as a leader.” In fact, because of her leadership, Jean has served on the boards of four National Scout Jamborees. Once, Steven Spielberg even signed the T-shirt she was wearing and she auctioned it off to raise funds for the Boy Scouts.

Jean is a woman of deep faith. A year ago, she describes a “perfect storm” that threatened her health. Everything that could go wrong seemed to go wrong. No one had any good news for her from the ophthalmologist to the audiologist, cardiologist, and the list went on. And if that weren’t all bad enough, she developed a painful case of shingles. In the depths of her worry as the different doctors worked to figure out what was wrong with her health, she was reading in Alma chapter 7. As Alma preached to the people in Gideon, he spoke of the Savior’s birth and mission, and the verses washed over her in a powerful wave of understanding. “I had a greater understanding and appreciation of the Atonement just knowing that Christ had experienced suffering in the flesh so that he could succor me. I’ve always had faith that I’m in the Lord’s hands and whatever is His will for me, I’m okay with that. But that experience deepened my appreciation of Him. Bottom line, you’re in the Lord’s hands. Trust in that and you’ll be fine.”

If Jean could choose one group of people to give advice to, it would be the young women of the church. She would tell them to “Make goals for yourself at this stage in your life that will bring you true joy, eternal joy. Then pray for the wisdom and strength to make the big and little decisions every day that will keep you on that path. Just know that the Lord knows you and He’s going to help you.”

Out of all her rich life experiences, what she’s most proud of is her kids. She has three daughters and a son spread across California, including Cathy Farrell in the Mission Lake ward. “I see them living lives where they are true to their covenants not because mama’s there to tell them but because that’s what they want to do. Their focus is their family and the gospel.”