Obituary | Simpson's giving spirit was "larger than life"

W. Hunter Simpson, one of Seattle's top philanthropists and a former executive who is credited with starting the four-day workweek in Western Washington, died Friday night at Swedish Medical Center.

The cause was heart failure, his family said Saturday. Mr. Simpson was 79.

For much of the 1980s and '90s, Mr. Simpson was often at the top of every Seattleite's list when a volunteer was needed for advisory boards, election campaigns or to donate money. The Mercer Island millionaire was the former president and chief executive officer of Physio-Control, maker of heart defibrillators and other heart and blood-pressure monitoring equipment.

Mr. Simpson, who joined Physio-Control in 1966 after 17 years as an IBM sales-and-marketing executive, quickly turned the Redmond-based company into a powerhouse and cultivated a loyal following among his employees, whom he referred to as "team members."

His idea of the 10-hour-day, four-day workweek remains a common practice. In 1985, his company was included in the book, "The 100 Best Companies to Work for in America."

"He was larger than life," said William Gerberding, former president of the University of Washington, where Mr. Simpson served on the Board of Regents from 1981-93. "He had many roles — in politics, in philanthropy and at the university and in business."

Gerberding considered Mr. Simpson "one of the greatest regents in the history of the university" and said he was a key player in building UW campuses in Bothell and Tacoma.

During the 1980s, Mr. Simpson was instrumental in pushing the UW to turn to the private sector for fundraising, which helped the university raise tens of millions of dollars, UW officials said.

"He was the most generous and giving man. ... He had a lot of passion for many causes, particularly for the University of Washington," said his daughter, Christine Brent.

Mr. Simpson was born Nov. 2, 1926, in Tacoma and graduated from Stadium High School. After graduating from the UW with a business degree in 1949, he became a rising star at IBM, overseeing 600 workers in 11 states from his office in downtown Seattle.

In 1966, he took over Physio and quickly turned it into one of the nation's most respected companies. Eli Lilly bought the company for $149 million 14 years later, but kept him in charge.

When Mr. Simpson retired in 1985, the company had reached the $100 million mark in annual sales. The company was purchased by Medtronic in 1998.

Mr. Simpson was an early advocate of turning Seattle into a biotech hub and investing locally.

"I get a pitch in the mail once a month: 'Why don't you build your machines in Taiwan, why don't you build your machines in Korea.' I just throw that stuff away," Simpson told The Seattle Times in 1985. "My responsibility is to create opportunities right here."

He kept a busy schedule, serving on the Mercer Island City Council and 30 medical, educational and nonprofit boards.

At the UW, though, he made headlines in 1986 for launching a fundraising drive on behalf of then-Gov. Booth Gardner at the same time he was asking Gardner to reappoint him to the UW Board of Regents. He was eventually reappointed to the board.

He was involved in another debate in 1997, when he was a volunteer on the state Information Services Board. He was fined for his part in a unanimous vote to uphold a state computer contract with IBM while he owned stock in the company.

The ruling did not taint Mr. Simpson's reputation, but he considered it unfair and vowed at the time to retreat from civic life. Nonetheless, Mr. Simpson remained active in civic causes, family and friends said.

Mr. Simpson loved sailing and was an "auctionholic," said childhood friend Dr. George Thomas. He once outbid everyone for a flight in a Russian MiG jet fighter for his wife of 54 years, Dorothy Lewis.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Simpson is survived by his brother, Robert Simpson of Spokane; a son, Brooks Simpson, of Bellevue; daughters Christine Brent of Tiburon, Calif., and Anne Simpson of Mercer Island; and six grandchildren. Mr. Simpson lost his 18-year-old grandson, R. Hunter Simpson, to brain cancer on Dec. 31.

A memorial service will be held Saturday at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 4400 86th Ave. S.E., Mercer Island, followed by a celebration of life at the Conibear Shellhouse at the UW. Times for both events were not yet available.

Information from The Seattle Times archives was used in this report. Tan Vinh: 206-515-5656 or