From David Housel:
Jack Simms was a good man.
As William Shakespeare wrote in Julius Caesar, “the elements so mixed in him that all the world might stand say, ‘This was a man…’”
Jack Simms was such a man.
As a Marine in some of the toughest, bloodiest, inch-by-inch, hand-to-hand fighting in the Pacific during World War II, he displayed his mettle, his toughness and his courage again and again.
He once said his whole war was fought defending or trying to take the 10 yards in front of him. In the trenches, on the front lines, it wasn’t about patriotism or motherhood; it was about survival, your survival and the survival of the man, the friend, the buddy, next to you.
Marines are America’s best, America’s toughest and Jack Simms was a Marine, a proud Marine. He wore the red coat of a Marine veteran often and proudly.
Tom Brokaw talks about “The Greatest Generation.” Jack Simms was part of that generation. Brokaw had men like Jack in mind when coined the phrase “Greatest Generation.” He made the world safer during the war and he made it better after the war. His war experiences did not define him. They were only part of who he was.
He had a heart, a kindness, and a compassion, that he did his best to hide.
He tried to, and often did, come across as a tough, strict, disciplinarian, an academic Marine sergeant of sort, but he had a heart, a big heart, as a reporter, an editor and as a professor.
It was as if he didn’t want his students to know how much he cared for them, how much he loved them, until they graduated, and then he was their biggest supporter, best friend, their greatest ally.
No professor, no department head, ever worked harder to find jobs and secure opportunities for his students than Jack did. He stayed in touch with them, most of them, for rest of his life. He made a difference in their lives and they enriched his life. It was a mutually beneficial experience.
He was a pillar in the University and in the community for whatsoever was right and good. He was a quiet leader, but his influence was strong and it was effective.
At his Friday morning breakfast club, he talked about issues and ideas, not people. When the talk turned to criticism of people, Jack became quiet. It was noted and appreciated. He was not a gossip as most if not all men are.
No matter what the subject, when Jack spoke, people listened. He had that kind of respect. He had the ability and wherewithal to disagree agreeably, a quality that is becoming more and more rarer in these times in which we live.
When the subject of theology came up, which it often did, he would quietly and respectfully listen to others’ opinions and beliefs. He would sometimes discreetly turn away, rolling his eyes in disbelief that anybody could see life, the world and faith that way, but he never tried to convince them that they should believe as he believed. He didn’t talk or argue his faith. He lived it, and he lived it well.
Lest we forget, Jack was human, too.
Nobody loved a party more than Jack, the more the merrier. He enjoyed a good stiff drink (or drinks) and he could tell a story. Oh, how he could tell a story. He was Auburn’s best. He loved to have a good time. He loved life and all that it entailed.
A strong man, a courageous man, a tough man. That was Jack Simms. A kind man, a caring man, a compassionate and respectful man, and a man of faith. That was Jack Simms.
Jack Simms was a good man. I was blessed to work for him and even more blessed to have him as my friend.
David Housel, 1969 Auburn alumnus, was a journalism professor for the University before he became athletic director.
From Bill Kimber:
I didn’t get to go to Jack Simms’ birthday party a few weeks ago. A work commitment made me change my plans. So the last time I saw Jack was when he was visiting the Opelika-Auburn News a couple years ago working on publicity for a new printing of the pictorial history of Auburn he wrote with Mickey Logue.
I was standing at my desk that afternoon when Tonya Balaam-Reed brought Jack in the door to the newsroom. I wouldn’t have been more excited to see Mick Jagger or the Pope. I knew Tonya was meeting with him that day, but I didn’t know I was going to get to see him, and honestly I was as star-struck as if Beyonce and Jay Z had walked in the room.
He was on my mind every day that I worked at the O-A. I always took an extra measure of care in everything that I edited, because that was Jack Simms’ hometown paper I was working on.
There’s a good bit of pressure on the night news editor of the paper that might show up next to the coffee of one of the brightest journalism professors ever. I couldn’t let a story go out with a boring lede. Or one with misspelled words or poor sentence structure. Or one that didn’t answer all the questions Jack Simms would want to have answered.
Thirty years had passed since I graduated from Auburn, and so many times I had relied on the facts Jack taught us all in JM101 – that classic weed-out course featuring four simple tests that were anything but easy. You had to spell correctly and have copy editing skills to succeed in Jack Simms’ world! (I can almost still quote Strunk and White about the leeches in the pond of prose.)
I didn’t figure the founder and head of the journalism department would remember a middle-of-the-pack student who spent too much time partying three decades previous, and not nearly enough time taking school seriously.
But he did remember me, and he asked after some of the people he knew I would’ve crossed paths with at some of the stops along my career path. I only got to see him for a few minutes that day, but it was so uplifting that basically the father of the Auburn journalism program hadn’t forgotten me.
Not that he was known for forgetting things.
By now you’ve heard about his auspicious military and journalism and academic careers, but there was something else he could do – probably a product of being an educated man of his generation – that would blow your mind.
I had two opportunities to watch as he recited the Rubiyat of Omar Khayyam, 101 verses of ancient Persian poetry that Jack would recite from start to finish, never referring to notes or prompts. His voice would rise and fall for dramatic effect throughout the 45 minutes or an hour it took to recite.
It’s still the most impressive display of memory I’ve ever seen, and it was obviously good exercise to keep his brilliant mind sharp.
I join my colleagues in the Auburn journalism family in extending our condolences to the Simms family. We mourn his loss, but we tally all our successes as his, and we marvel at the impact he made on the world.
One student at a time, one story at a time.
Bill Kimber is a 1985 Auburn alumnus.
From John Carvalho:
In the summer of 2003, I was on a weekend visit to Auburn, preparing to move down and join the faculty.
Trapped in Comer Hall parking lot by a thunderstorm, I called Jack Simms.
As we talked, I told him, “Jack, my goal in coming to Auburn is to be to my students what you were to us.”
That would be a huge challenge, because of what Jack meant to Auburn journalism and its students over his 18 years as department head and the years that followed.
For those of us privileged to be his students, he was the ideal professor, mentor and friend, and he made sure that the faculty members he brought on used the same approach.
Jack’s first year was my freshman year, so I benefited from his classroom instruction and his mentorship as I worked on The Auburn Plainsman. But it meant even more, these past 13 years, to be his friend.
As we Auburn journalism majors graduated, and so many of us went on to distinguished careers and syndicated columns and front pages and Pulitzer Prizes, Jack was our most treasured cheerleader.
Yet he never talked about himself much.
We had heard about Iwo Jima, but it wasn’t until he showed me an unpublished manuscript within the past few months that I realized what he had experienced.
The manuscript refers to a point during the battle where Jack and a fellow Marine had gotten separated from their company, the result of poor communication.
Amidst the smoke, grenades, mortars and rifles, they still managed to rejoin their company, and he survived.
In class, he never mentioned how, as an AP reporter in Tampa, he talked himself aboard a rescue ship that was heading toward the site of a private yacht fire in which young people from several prominent New York families died. Or how he also got aboard the ship that had picked up the survivors and interviewed them. Or how he tossed his film from the ship to a co-worker standing on the dock after the rescue ship returned, dodging quarantine rules. This was heroic journalistic stuff.
Having returned to Auburn, I got to spend time with Jack, whether at our Friday morning breakfast group or at various journalism gatherings.
If we had driven together to Birmingham or Atlanta for an alumni meeting, it meant sitting patiently (often with his wife, Jo), waiting while he talked individually to each student. They meant that much to each other.
His decline was noticeable and worrisome over the past few months, but it had its moments.
The first was his 90th birthday party, moved up to October to take advantage of the bye week.
So many showed up, and Jack’s family did a great job of roasting him but also telling stories like the one above.
And again he took the time to greet each guest and friend who approached.
The second was just three days ago, when Jack was brought to the field for the military appreciation halftime show.
He had told me earlier in the week that he didn’t know if he could make it, but he did, and accepted the crowd’s grateful cheers.
Those two, combined, would turn out to be our last chance to say goodbye to Jack.
We suspected as much, but it still made us glad and grateful that we were able to.
And now the torch has completely passed to those of us who learned from Jack. Each of us fulfills his legacy in our own way -- myself as director of the journalism program.
Intimidating? A little, but not too much.
By his teaching, and by the example of his life, Jack prepared us well.
John Carvalho is an associate professor and associate director for journalism.