Q&A with Author Denise Doherty Pappas ’71, ’85SM

February 11, 2015

Denise Doherty Pappas

Simmons Trustee Denise Doherty Pappas ’71, ’85SM recently published John Simmons: The Measure of Man, a biography of Simmons College’s founder. 

Q: What did you know about John Simmons prior to writing this book? 

I knew that he founded Simmons, which I graduated from twice, first with a BA in English and art history, and then later with an MBA. But I didn’t give John much thought until my early forties.

Q: What inspired you to tell this story? 

Two experiences returned me to this radical 19th century tailor, making me proud of, grateful for, and curious about this man and his mission. Before and after the Gulf War, I worked in Saudi Arabia and experienced the gender restrictions similar to those faced by my American Simmons foremothers decades earlier. I realized how lucky I was to have an exceptional college education that led to very rewarding work and play opportunities and I wanted to know more about the man who had made this possible.

Tragically, in 1992, my college classmate, Betsy McCandless, was murdered by her ex-husband at a time when domestic violence was perceived as a private matter. Yet Simmons responded rightly by stepping up and instituting “Betsy’s Friends,” the first relationship violence peer prevention program on a college campus. My admiration for this institution grew.

Q: Tell us about your writing and research process. 

In 2011, I received a grant to study biography at the Norman Mailer Writing Center then in Provincetown, MA. I spent three years researching and writing about John, a modest clothing manufacturer with two daughters, a man who had the foresight to leave his fortune to endow a women’s college so that female scholars could enjoy “an independent livelihood.” 

John’s biography is a labor of love and an expression of my gratitude for a man I never met, but one I feel I now know a bit better. 

Q: What do you hope readers take way from the book? 

My hope is that you will come to appreciate not just John Simmons the man, but the long reach of all those who came before us and made our world a better place.


Learn more about the book at johnsimmonsbiography.com. All proceeds from sales of the book benefit The Simmons Fund