'Leading us right to the end': Industry mourns death of Ray Simon

Alumni of the late professor warmly recall his influence on their lives.

Image via Utica College's Twitter page
Image via Utica College's Twitter page

UTICA, NY: Utica College’s professor emeritus of PR, Ray Simon, known for mentoring hundreds of PR pros, passed away on Tuesday at age 102.

Ketchum CEO Rob Flaherty reminisced on Simon’s effect on his own life in a statement, saying he was a "pioneer in PR education."

"[Simon] often believed in our potential even before we did," Flaherty said. "He set high standards for us but also for himself as a tireless coach and mentor from the minute we walked into his classroom and then decades later as we progressed through our careers. [Simon] made such an indelible impression on all of us that we said we were ‘Simonized’ when we competed our degree."

For 36 years, Simon taught at the small college in Upstate New York. In 1951, he founded one of the first undergraduate programs for PR. He authored numerous PR textbooks and played a key role in Utica College’s support of PRSSA when it was founded, an obituary from the Utica Observer-Dispatch noted. He retired in 1985.

Over the course of his career, Simon taught hundreds of students, some of whom would go on to lead comms for global PR firms and brands. One student he helped at key moments in his career was Bob Feldman, partner at PulsePoint Group, a division of ICF International.

Feldman met Simon as a freshman in 1974. The elder professor went on to help Feldman land an NBC internship and a spot on NBC’s Tomorrow Show when it hosted a forum on college journalism with Tom Snyder. Feldman was also the first-ever recipient of the Ray Simon Scholarship in 1977.

"The single sentence he said to me that changed my life was, ‘Hey, Bob, I think you’d be good in PR,’" Feldman recalled. "He was active in cultivating and maintaining the alumni community, more so than any professor I’ve seen."

Luke Lambert is another Simon alum that would go on to become the CEO of G&S Business Communications. Lambert emphasized Simon’s ability in cultivating talent, saying the case studies in his textbooks made sure PR students graduated "knowing corporations aren’t perfect and that the responsibility we hold as communications and advisors to the C-suite is a critical part of business success."

The network Simon cultivated also includes: Gary Grates, principal at W2O Group; Dave D’Alessandro, former CEO of John Hancock Company; Owen Comora, the former director of national press at NBC; Jean-Marie Kneeley, the Vice Dean for Advancement for the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania; Bruce Maguire, president of Southard Freeman Communications; Peggy Odenbach, regional sales director at Starwood Hotels; Dorree Gurdak, EVP of Weber Shandwick; and Cos Mallozzi, the former CEO of G&S Business Communications.

"[Simon] retired in 1985, but you have to say retirement in quotes because he was such an influencer decades after," said Lambert. "It wasn’t a true retirement."

In 2005, to celebrate Simon’s 90th birthday, about 200 people attended a gala in New York City, where the establishment of the Raymond Simon Convergence Media Center in Utica was announced.

Another birthday party was thrown in his honor 10 years later, this time with a smaller group that included Feldman, Flaherty, Grates, his wife Lynn, and Lambert, the G&S CEO recalled.

Lambert noted that everyone at that party felt they owed so much of their success to Simon.

"He was directing us right to the end," Lambert added. "We left around the same time and we were backing out of his driveway. It was difficult. He was out there behind the vehicles motioning, with authority, with that half-cracked smile he was famous for. He was leading us right to the end."

Other distinguished alum that passed through Simon’s classroom include former U.S. Congressman Sherwood Boehlert; the Wall Street Journal’s Tom McGinty, a Pulitzer prize winner in 2014; James Asher, news editor at the Associated Press and winner of a Pulitzer prize in 2017; Michael Albano, director of comms at GM; and David Armon, the former PRNewswire President and now publisher of CR Magazine.

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