Peter Simer, the Executive Director of NOLS from 1975 until 1983 whose business acumen pulled the school from a precarious financial spot, died at his home in Lander, Wyoming, on September 25 after a short battle with cancer. He was surrounded by friends, family, and Cyndy, his wife of 44 years. Peter was 74.
Born in Minneapolis, Minn., Peter Allen Simer was the sixth of 10 children. His family moved throughout the Midwest and Rocky Mountain West in Peter’s childhood, but returned to Minneapolis where he graduated from high school in 1965. He attended the University of Southern California, graduating in 1969 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Economics.
Peter came to NOLS as a student in 1970, having read about the school in LIFE magazine while living in a commune in Southern California. He became a NOLS instructor the following year—recognizable by his long hair and booming voice—and concurrently earned a Master’s degree in Special Education from Southern Connecticut State College.
In 1975, as NOLS bumped along in the wake of profound fiscal troubles and conflicts between the Board of Directors, founder Paul Petzoldt, and instructors, Peter was approached by the board to consider the position of executive director.
“They said they’d like me to be director, and I thought about it and figured if nobody does it, the school will be out of business, so I’ll do it,” Peter told the authors of A Worthy Expedition: The History of NOLS in 2016.
The one time “wild man” instructor cut his hair and stepped forward with a sound education, deep likability, even better brains, and leadership experience (he had been the president of the budding NOLS Instructor Association).
“To his everlasting credit,” said former instructor Samuel ‘Q’ Belk, “he stepped into a leadership vacuum and pulled it off, completely changed overnight, and literally saved the damn school. There probably wouldn’t be a NOLS if Simer hadn’t taken over.”
Peter is credited with righting the ship, bringing order to chaos, and pinching pennies to get the school through incredibly tight financial times. He saw the benefit of—and encouraged—word-of-mouth promotion, and recognized the importance of scholarships.
“He was absolutely critical,” then-board member Bill Scott is quoted in A Worthy Expedition. “He was the right one for the job.”
Just a few years into the job, Peter and NOLS instructor Cyndy Hicks Simer married and started a family. They raised two sons, Kurt and Fletcher, and one daughter, Laurel.
Peter resigned from NOLS in May 1983 and enrolled in the Stanford Graduate School of Business, graduating with an MBA in 1985. They moved to Columbus, Indiana, where Peter worked for Cummins Engine Company until 1993. After a year in Seattle, working as the CEO of Cascade Cabinets, the family moved to Cedar Falls, Iowa, where Peter served as the CEO of Engineered Products Company from 1994 until he retired in 2007. In 2013, Upon Cyndy’s retirement, Peter and Cyndy returned to Lander, purchasing a home just a handful of blocks from the NOLS Rocky Mountain campus and a stone’s throw from the new NOLS Headquarters building. NOLS friends were thrilled Peter and Cyndy were again part of their local community.
“Peter’s love of NOLS never waned,” said former NOLS President Terri Watson. “When we moved back to Lander in January of 2020, Peter quickly reached out to offer friendship, unique counsel, and incredible support over these past few unusual years. Even in his final days, Peter’s warmth, wit, and care for both NOLS and me personally was on display, and I know I am among many who miss him terribly.”
Peter was a life-long outdoorsman and an accomplished mountaineer, having traveled throughout the world to climb. He was known for his quick wit, his vast knowledge of a wide breadth of subjects, and his passion for friends and family.
Photo courtesy the Simer Family.
Peter leaves his loving wife and children, four grandchildren, scores of friends—and the gratitude of many who recognize that NOLS would not be here today without his efforts.
A celebration of life is planned for 2 p.m., July 19 at the Lander Community Center. To RSVP for the event, please click here.
His family recommends that those wishing to honor Peter make a gift to NOLS’ Peter Simer Memorial Fund in support of faculty development.
In addition to NOLS, the family asks that people consider donating to Anam Cara Giving, Venmo: @anamcaracaregiving or at 909 Fremont St., Lander, WY 82520.
Anne McGowan is the Communications Coordinator for NOLS Development.