Mary Phyllis (Nelson) Simpson of Flagstaff, age 67, passed away Wednesday, September 25, 2013 following a boating accident on the Colorado River, in the arms of her husband of fifty years, in her beloved Grand Canyon.
Mary Phyl was born on August 21, 1946 in Winslow, Arizona, to John Robert and Emma Jean (Babbitt) Nelson, the second of three daughters. In the early 1950's, her parents operated the Park Service concession for the Thunderbird Lodge and Trading Post in Chinle, Arizona. She and her older sister Jeanie attended the local one room schoolhouse for one year, but learned very little that year as the school was wild and disorderly. After that, she was sent to live in Flagstaff during the school year, with her grandparents, Joe and Viola Babbitt, where she attended Saint Anthony’s (Nativity) Catholic School. During the summers, Mary and Jeanie adventured in the canyons during the day, riding on horseback up the canyons and swinging from their knees in the Canyon de Chelly ruins that are now closed to the public. In the evening, the sisters dressed in traditional Navajo velvet dresses, their hair in classic Navajo buns, with heavy silver jewelry for the dinners that were served family style in the Lodge. In 1958, her father died, and her mother sold the Thunderbird Lodge. Mary stayed in Flagstaff and lived with her grandparents while she finished school.
Mary met her husband, Robert Simpson when she was thirteen, and he was fourteen. They married shortly after they graduated from Flagstaff High School in 1963. They had three children, Janet Elaine, Kenneth Charles, and Lillian Ruth. In 1967, they moved to Cameron Arizona, on the Navajo reservation so that Robert could help his father with the business that he had established there. They moved to Tucson with their children in 1972, to pursue more education at the University of Arizona, but returned to Flagstaff in 1974. In 1976, Robert and Mary took over the family business in Cameron from Robert’s parents, Willard and Lillian Simpson. Mary had been happy as a student, housewife and mother. She was reluctantly recruited to do bookkeeping for the small grocery store and soon found herself managing the business. She transformed it into something of real value to the community, carrying a full selection of groceries, fresh meat, and fresh produce. She embraced the social aspects of the business. She knew most of the community by name, enjoyed greeting Navajo grandmothers and playing with babies.
In 1976, Mary hiked the Grand Canyon for the first time with her husband and children. It was to become her lifetime passion. She became an expert in lightweight backpacking. She hiked with her husband, her children, her mother and sisters, she hiked with friends, and she hiked alone. She hiked in every season. She discovered the joy of rafting the Canyon on a family trip in 1982. After several trips in the following years, she and Robert bought their own boat in 2004 and had several trips each year until the park service imposed a trip-a-year limit in 2009.
She died in her husband’s arms in the place that had always brought her the most joy. She died with her river sandals on, a thought that has brought a great deal of comfort to her grieving family.
Mary Phyl is described by friends and family as a person who lived life with gusto, both in her love of family and love of adventure, a woman with a huge heart and generous nature. She loved to read, and she loved to teach, children and adults alike. Mary Simpson left bits of her knowledge and love everywhere she went. She will be profoundly missed.
Mary was predeceased by her father John Robert Nelson and her older sister Jean Elizabeth Nelson Hansen, grandparents Viola and Joe Babbitt, and Axel (AB) and Elsie Nelson. She is survived by her mother Emma Jean Bader, husband Robert, her children; Janet Shipley (Mark), Kenneth Simpson (Tiffany), and Lillian Ruth McCarty (Terrence), seven grandchildren, her sister Claire Jane West, as well as many nieces and nephews for whom Mary was a second mother.
There will be a memorial for Mary at 11 am on Sunday October 27, 2013 at the Worship Site of the Bright Angel Trailhead at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. The memorial will be followed by a reception at the Grand Canyon Recreational Center, 2 Mohave Street Grand Canyon Village, AZ 86023. All are welcome. Please dress for the weather, bring a folding chair and a potluck dish. Check https://www.facebook.com/maryphyl for updates in the event of inclement weather or park closure.
This obituary was prepared by the Advertising Department (928) 556-2279.