Richard D. Simmons, former Washington Post Co. president, dies at 86

Former Washington Post president Richard D. "Dick" Simmons, right, with Post executives, Katharine Graham, center, and Donald Graham, left, in 1991.
Former Washington Post president Richard D. "Dick" Simmons, right, with Post executives, Katharine Graham, center, and Donald Graham, left, in 1991.Washington Post photo by Harry Naltchayan

Richard D. Simmons, who was president and chief operating officer of The Washington Post Co. in the 1980s, making strategic investments and purchases that bolstered the company's revenue and stock price, died June 21 at his home in Alexandria, Va. He was 86.

The cause was melanoma, said his wife, Susan Diamond.

Simmons joined The Post in 1981 after an earlier career in law and as an executive with Dun & Bradstreet, a credit-rating organization that was also disseminating business news.

In her 1997 autobiography, "Personal History," The Post Co.'s chief executive at the time, Katharine Graham, called the protracted effort to find an executive to lead The Post's business side "the search for Mr. Wonderful."

Graham, the first woman to lead a Fortune 500 company, quickly formed a strong working partnership with Simmons, who sought ways to broaden the company's portfolio while preserving its core mission as a publisher of news.

"Kay Graham would have said Dick Simmons was one of the two most important hires she made at the Post Company, second only to [longtime editor] Ben Bradlee," Donald E. Graham, who succeeded his mother as chief executive, said in an email. "He was a wise builder of the company for ten crucial years and the most effective business partner Katharine Graham ever had."

At the time, The Post had been a publicly traded company for only 10 years. The initial offering of stock sold for $26 a share.

When Simmons took over the business operations, the company owned The Post and a few smaller newspapers, Newsweek magazine, a sports magazine and four television stations.

Simmons sold some unprofitable properties and invested in others, most notably engineering the purchase in 1984 of the Stanley H. Kaplan Co. (later Kaplan Educational Centers), a tutoring and test-preparation company that became a major source of income for The Post. He also led efforts to diversify into electronic communications, including cellular technology and cable television.

During his years at The Post, Simmons said he placed an emphasis on corporate responsibility, saying in 1991 that "human beings, not columns of numbers, make a difference."

Throughout the 1980s, revenue and profits soared, making The Post one of the most successful media businesses in the country. By the time he and Katharine Graham stepped aside in 1991, the company's stock had increased to $245 a share.

"So much of the success for which we were being recognized," she added, "was directly attributable to Dick."

Richard DeLacey was born Dec. 30, 1934, in Cambridge, Mass. His parents divorced when he was a child, and he was adopted by his mother's second husband, Everett J. Simmons, a scholar of Russian and Slavic literature at Cornell and Columbia universities.

Simmons grew up largely in Ithaca, N.Y., and attended private boarding schools in New Hampshire, including Phillips Exeter Academy. He graduated from Harvard in 1955 and from Columbia University's law school in 1958.

He practiced law before joining Dun & Bradstreet, where he held executive positions, including president of a subsidiary, Moody's Investors Service. He was vice chairman of Dun & Bradstreet when he came to The Post.

After leaving The Post, Simmons spent five years as president of the International Herald Tribune, an international newspaper then jointly owned by The Post and the New York Times. He also taught at the University of Richmond and other colleges and served on corporate boards, including J.P. Morgan, Union Pacific and Yankee magazine.

His first wife, Mary Bleecker Simmons, died in 2004 after 43 years of marriage. A son, Christopher DeWitt Simmons, died in 2013.

Survivors include his wife of two years, Susan Diamond of Alexandria; a daughter from his first marriage, Robin Simmons Turner of Arlington, Va.; and five grandchildren.