John Simon, Tireless Editor of Grant’s Papers, Dies at 75


Published: July 10, 2008

John Y. Simon, a Civil War scholar whose mammoth effort in editing of the papers of Ulysses S. Grant created a new standard for the organization of historical documents, died on Tuesday in Carbondale, Ill. He was 75.

John Y. Simon

His wife of 51 years, Harriet Simon, confirmed his death.

For 34 years, Mr. Simon was on the history faculty of Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, teaching courses on the Civil War, Reconstruction and the history of Illinois. But his true vocation was the Grant papers project, comprising thousands of documents and annotations, which he began in 1962 and which was nearing completion at his death. Mr. Simon had published 28 volumes, with Nos. 29 and 30 scheduled for release next year by Southern Illinois University Press; a supplemental volume and an annotated edition of Grant’s memoirs were to follow.

The volumes helped cement Grant’s place as a literary memoirist and not just a war diarist. But perhaps more important, said Harold Holzer, an Abraham Lincoln scholar and a senior vice president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, they changed the nature of documentary editing, bringing the perspective of a biographer rather than a cataloger to the enterprise.

“He changed the whole ethos of presidential papers,” Mr. Holzer said in an interview Wednesday. “He matched incoming correspondence with outgoing, so researchers would have a complete episode. He included editorial commentary that was more substantial than footnotes. He wrote introductions to each volume. They’re a model for the Jefferson papers, the Wilson papers; he’s the father of this whole discipline.”

John Younker Simon was born in Highland Park, Ill., outside Chicago, on June 25, 1933. His father was a banker. He graduated from Swarthmore College and received an M.A. and a Ph.D., both in history, from Harvard, where he met his future wife. He taught at Ohio State before he found a home at Southern Illinois in 1964.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by a sister, Barbara Stuart of Deerfield, Ill.; a daughter, Ellen Roundtree of Buffalo Grove, Ill.; and two grandchildren.

In the last months of his life, Mr. Simon was embroiled in a campus controversy when he was accused of verbally harassing three women employed by the Ulysses S. Grant Association and the university library, where the association has its offices. Mr. Simon was the executive director of the association, which seeks financing for historical research and provides research services for the Grant project.

He disputed the accusations, and in support of him, the association’s board voted to sever its ties with Southern Illinois and seek another university partner. A reconciliation that would have allowed Mr. Simon to return to teaching at Southern Illinois was being negotiated at his death, said the association’s president, Chief Justice Frank J. Williams of the Rhode Island Supreme Court.

Beyond the Grant papers, for which he was awarded a Lincoln Prize in 2004, Mr. Simon wrote or edited a number of other books dealing with Lincoln, Grant and the Civil War and dozens of journal articles on subjects of wide variance in 19th-century American history.

The Grant project consumed him, though. He worked on it every day, his wife said.

“It was daily, it was weekends and it was most holidays,” she said. “Some holidays not all day.”

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