On September 28, 2017, the Harrisburg School District found out life can flash in the blink of an eye.
Brian Simpson, a longtime coach and teacher at Harrisburg, was driving his cross country team to a meet in Moberly. A truck crossed the center line and struck his bus head-on. The bus rolled off the road and caught fire. The team made it out OK. Simpson was pronounced dead at the scene.
Simpson never stopped working. He was a Government and Current Events teacher at the high school and a World History and American History teacher at the middle school. When he wasn’t teaching, he was coaching.
He was the head coach for the Harrisburg cross country and baseball teams. When he wasn’t doing any of that, he served as a husband and father at home.
The news of the tragedy immediately struck the community. A vigil was held at the baseball field that night, over 700 people showed up. The lights remained on overnight in honor of Coach Simpson.
An outpouring of support came from schools around the area, proving the wide impact this tragedy had.
Social media posts of students coming together for Harrisburg came in from schools like Madison, Paris, and North Shelby. Moberly students changed the theme of their football game to “Red Out”.
Not only was support shown, schools started raising money for Harrisburg as well. The Higbee junior high basketball teams hosted a “Red Out” game and raised over $1,100.
The Salisbury Booster Club sold walking tacos at a football game with proceeds going to Harrisburg.
Perhaps the biggest show of support came from Fayette, the rival school.
Fayette students stood together holding signs that read “Brian Simpson Always” and “#WeStandWithHarrisburg”.
Fayette was to have a rivalry football game with Harrisburg the night after the accident. The game got canceled, but that didn’t stop Fayette from showing support.
The Fayette Booster Club hosted its usual tailgate that night and accepted donations to the Brian Simpson Memorial Fund. They raised $2,600.
It was a reminder to everyone that at the end of the day, sports are just a game. Competitions are fun, rivalries are fun, winning a hard-fought game is fun, but life is much bigger.
“You realize that all of us can get along and all of us certainly appreciated Brian,” Roger VanDeZande, Fayette’s head football coach, said. “We’re from small communities so we realize the serious impact it had, and it was great to see the support for Harrisburg.”
VanDeZande taught and coached at Harrisburg for two years prior to going to Fayette. His classroom was right across the hall from Simpson.
Returning to normal was difficult for Harrisburg, both students and staff. They were missing a key piece in the classroom, on the field, and in life.
That’s one thing that Simpson brought to everybody he knew, an injection of life. With him gone, the school and community felt it.
People respond to tragedy differently. Some may take a few days, others a few weeks. For Harrisburg, time in general was the best tool.
“We tried to get back to normalcy as soon as possible,” Harrisburg Principal Kyle Fisher said. “It probably took the better part of a month to get back to normal but it’s one of those things you don’t ever get over. With these tragedies, time is really about the only thing that can heal it.”
The same can be said for Harrisburg Athletic Director Doug Fessler.
“Time really heals. There’s days that you’re reminded of something, but time has definitely made everything better,” he said.
Fessler will miss the memories and time he spent with Simpson. They would always go on an annual fishing trip to Bennett Springs that won’t get to happen anymore.
There’s two main ways people can think of, or accept, tragedy. Some can choose to look at the positives and be happy with what was.
“Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened,” they would say. For some, it’s not that easy. Some people find it easier to face it for what it is, a true tragedy. Fessler is no different.
“I think for me I just accepted that life sucks sometimes and good people leave,” Fessler said.
That’s the problem the Harrisburg community faced and still faces. It’s hard for a community to accept the situation when a great life is lost. Many will ask why, but nobody will ever know the answer. That’s the hardest part.
Harrisburg baseball coach Chris Ackman thinks about it every day. Simpson was no ordinary person to Ackman. Simpson was his neighbor, a fellow teacher, a fellow coach, his best friend.
“I put on a pretty good face to come into the building,” Ackman said. “I’ve accepted that he’s no longer here, but I haven’t come to grips with it yet.”
The problem with this tragedy happening so early in the school year is the community hasn’t had time to take a breath.
Christmas break provided something, but the accident was still fresh on the minds of everyone. This summer, Ackman hopes to finally be able to take that breath.
“I’m ready for the school year to be over and maybe then I can start to move on,” he said. “Every day you come out and whether you’re in school or it’s baseball related, you’re just constantly thinking about him.”
Ackman’s baseball team was hurt just as much as he was. Simpson coached the team for 15 years and led the program to three district titles. Ackman emphasized in the face of tragedy, it’s ok for all of us to be human.
“It’s more of just letting the students know that it’s ok if you’ve got to have your moment,” he said.
Fisher, Fessler, and Ackman made one thing clear, Simpson’s impact may never be matched.
“We’re all better people for having known him,” Fisher said. “The impact that he had can’t be overstated, he’ll never be forgotten.”
Simpson was what everyone in Harrisburg wanted to be. He was a great coach, teacher, father, husband, and role model.
Brian Simpson will never be forgotten.
Harrisburg’s baseball field has a new name and it’s in honor of Brian Simpson.
Coach Brian T. Simpson Memorial Field was named in a ceremony prior to Harrisburg’s season opener against Westran in March.
The idea was originally proposed to the school board by Kyle Fisher, Doug Fessler, and Superintendent Steve Combs. It didn’t need discussion and passed on a quick 7-0 vote.
The dedication brought hundreds of current and old Harrisburg residents, as well as surrounding community members.
To prove the wide impact Simpson had, six umpires worked that night, regulation high school baseball games have two. Not only that, they all worked for free.
Fessler delivered the keynote address to start things off. It was an important event to help him in the grievance process. Fisher enjoyed every minute of the night.
“It’s a night that everybody’s going to remember for a long time and definitely an emotional night,” Fisher said.
Simpson led Harrisburg to three district titles over 15 seasons and compiled a career record of 257-179.
Bradey Simpson, Brian’s daughter, threw out the ceremonial first pitch.
Westran baseball coach Kyle Ginter knew Simpson through the sport and was eager to be a part of the dedication.
“We were excited about it,” he said. “It was a great idea and a great memorial for him. We were really glad to be a part of it.”
Westran went on to win the game 5-1.