Verna Simpkins, 94, of Philadelphia, retired schoolteacher and counselor, past president of Covenant House Health Services, and trustee emerita of the First African Baptist Church, died Wednesday, Sept. 14, of cancer at her home.
A leader for decades at church and in her Germantown community, Mrs. Simpkins was inspired by her faith and dedicated to helping children and others in need. Before she retired in 1990, she worked in the 1970s and ‘80s as a teacher and math specialist at Pickett Middle School and then a counselor at Fairhill Elementary School.
She joined Covenant House, a federally funded heath services clinic, in 1964, became a board member in 1969, and retired as president in 2001. She was president at the Baptist Women’s Center, a food distribution location, from 2011 to 2015 and vice president previously for 15 years.
“She was an original thinker,” said her daughter Melissa Miller. “She solved problems with a common sense viewpoint and was all about making things better.”
She and her husband, Robert Simpkins Sr., also purchased, refurbished, and sold several abandoned homes in her neighborhood. “She lived by: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’” said her daughter Beth Puciata. “She was all about community service and keeping her neighborhood nice.”
Mrs. Simpkins became active at First African Baptist Church at 16th and Christian Streets in 1973 and went on to serve as Sunday school teacher, chair of the board of Christian education and the board of trustees, and committee member and trustee for the Baptist Congress of Christian Education. She joined Nazarene Baptist Church in 2017 after First African Baptist relocated to West Philadelphia.
“We know that she was a wonderful woman of God who loved her family and friends,” members and staff at Nazarene Baptist said in an online tribute. Her daughter Velma Chisholm said: “She always told me I could do whatever I wanted to if I worked hard. She was right.”
Born March 14, 1928, in Philadelphia, Verna Hankinson graduated from Philadelphia High School for Girls in 1946. She married Robert Simpkins in 1947, and they moved to Germantown after living briefly in New York.
She worked at the Army’s Frankford Arsenal from 1951 to 1964 as a computer programmer, plotting launch and landing patterns for artillery. She earned an associate’s degree in 1969 from Community College of Philadelphia, a bachelor’s degree in elementary education at the University of Pennsylvania, and a master’s degree in education from Antioch University in the 1980s.
She and her husband had sons Robert Jr., Jan, and Cornelius, and daughters Velma, Beth, and Melissa. Her husband and son Robert Jr. died earlier.
Mrs. Simpkins liked to browse clothing thrift stores, putter around in her garden, and was especially fond of her roses. She was adamant about serving balanced meals at dinner, used cherries from a neighbor’s tree to bake pies in the summer, and whipped up homemade pasta sauce on the weekends.
Inventive, she sometimes spontaneously explained algebra to her sons by fogging the bathroom mirror with her breath and working out the problem with her finger. “I always wondered how she knew that stuff, especially since she had not gone to college at that time,” said her son Cornelius. “Obviously now I know that she was a computer programmer with a high school education.”
Mrs. Simpkins got to know the families of her students when she was a teacher, and they often greeted her lovingly in the neighborhood after she retired. An adherent of the “it takes a village” concept of education, she was the first adult to expose many of the children to good eating habits and the advantages of mastering math.
Her niece, Anastasia Gray, said Mrs. Simpkins showed unconditional support to the entire family. “She had a beautiful mind,” Miller said. “If she had been born in different circumstances the world would know about her.”
Mrs. Simpkins also experienced previous bouts of breast cancer and colon cancer. “I had heard so many horror stories about mothers that I made sure to tell her what a great mother she was,” Puciata said. “I told her, ‘Thank God you were my mother.’”
In addition to her children, Mrs. Simpkins is survived by seven grandchildren, 11 great-grandchildren, two great-great-grandchildren, four brothers, one sister, and other relatives. Four sisters died earlier.
A viewing is scheduled for 9 to 11 a.m. Thursday, Sept. 22, at Nazarene Baptist Church, 3975 Germantown Ave., Philadelphia, Pa. 19140. A funeral service is to follow.
Donations in her name may be made to the American Cancer Society, P.O. Box 6704, Hagerstown, Md. 21741.