Mother of NPR host had ‘genius for friendship’

Became Twitter sensation in her last hours

July 31, 2013 by Michelle Manchir, Chicago Tribune reporter

This week, many people learned a little bit about Patricia Lyons Simon Newman, whose final hours were lovingly documented on Twitter by her son, NPR “Weekend Edition Saturday” host Scott Simon.

His brief online messages, of course, left much about her life unsaid.

Newman, who was 84 when she died of complications from a lung infection Monday, was married to two notable Chicagoans and worked most of her life in jobs that ran from hand model to secretary. She was the kind of person who wrote thank-you notes for something as simple as arranging a cab ride and made the effort to roast a chicken for a friend who’d lost her husband.

Last year, she was the star on a cruise ship she traveled on with her family, charming widowers who sought a spot at the dinner table with her, Simon said.

She was a fun-loving woman who was always elegant and impeccably dressed but remained down-to-earth, friends said.

“From Lady Bird Johnson to the doorman who’s getting her car out of the garage, she was absolutely kind and generous and warm to everybody. She didn’t see class or status,” said Tish Valva, a longtime friend who formerly worked with Simon at WBEZ-FM, the local NPR affiliate.

She was born Patricia Lyons on Aug. 31, 1928, in Oak Park and attended Catholic schools in Chicago until she got kicked out with a friend because they tried on the nuns’ habits, Simon said.

After finishing school elsewhere, she worked at night clubs and dabbled in hand modeling. Her thumb appeared in an ad for Diet Rite, according to her son.

In 1949, she married Chicago radio host and comedian Ernie Simon, whom she met while dropping off a cake she baked at his studio. He saw her through the studio glass and invited her to talk on air before asking her out, Simon said. In the 1950s, Ernie Simon was a fixture on Chicago TV.

The couple moved frequently around the country, following Ernie Simon’s jobs in Washington, D.C., Cleveland and San Francisco. Scott Simon was born in 1952.

“We kept moving, and I was always the kid with the prettiest mother in the class,” Simon recalled.

Ernie Simon died in 1968, leaving Newman a single mother. She lived in a studio apartment on Elm Street on the North Side and worked various jobs — as a restaurant hostess, a secretary for an ad agency and a typist for a magazine about farm machinery, Simon said.

Later, she married Ralph Newman, an internationally recognized book dealer who specialized in Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. The couple shared an apartment in the John Hancock Center, where they hosted small parties with local celebrities like Jack Brickhouse in attendance, said Laurie Nayder, a family friend and who attended many of those gatherings.

The Newmans were married for about 25 years until his death in 1998, said Ralph Newman’s daughter, Maxine Brandenburg.

In subsequent years, Newman continued to be a regular theater-goer, especially at the Goodman Theatre and the Steppenwolf Theatre, and visitor to the Art Institute of Chicago. Friends visiting the city could be counted on being invited for high tea. She also married a third husband, Matthew Gelbin, who survives her.

She and her son had an especially close relationship. “If Scott (Simon) came to Chicago and was going out with friends, she was always invited,” said Nayder.

In 2008, Newman appeared as a guest on Simon’s “Weekend Edition Saturday.” They sat on the sofa in her Near North Side apartment and talked about life lessons. She told of an incident in which, as a young woman, she pretended to need a seeing eye dog in order to bring her pooch into a restaurant.

Newman’s courtesy and charm remained intact to the end, Simon said. She learned the names of all her nurses at Northwestern and gathered details about their families, Simon said. He also recalled a time in recent weeks in her hospital room when she asked for opera music to be played to ease her anxiety.

“Maybe opera will help. It always put me to sleep when I went,” she told her son, he said with a laugh.

Simon said one of the biggest lessons from his mother was her manners, and not just manners in the sense of saying “please” and “thank you.”

“Good manners in the sense that you treat people with dignity and respect and understanding,” Simon said. “She had a genius for friendship.”

Scott Simon’s 1.2 million Twitter followers may have gotten a sense of that as they followed the plight he chronicled from his mother’s hospital room this week.

Moments after she died, he tweeted this:

“She will make the face of heaven shine so fine that all the world will be in love with night.”

Services are being planned.

Source: Chicago Tribune | Twitter @TribuneMM