Jul 12 2012


As reported in the Missoulian

Missoula has lost its role model.

Tributes and condolences poured in Tuesday as word spread of the sudden death of Don Simmons, who succumbed to a heart attack Monday.

Simmons, 84, was a retired University of Montana music professor who once chaired what’s now the UM School of Music.

But his legacy of getting and remaining engaged spread from the university, the arts and civics communities on up to the most important community of all – his family.

“It’s not as good a world today as it was before Don passed away, I’ll tell you that,” Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, said from his office in Washington, D.C. “He’s one of those guys who looked out for his fellow man and was concerned about people other than himself.”

“He touched so many, many lives of the people of Missoula,” said Marlene Bain, who with husband Phil counted themselves as lucky beneficiaries of the kind of warm friendship Simmons and wife Pat are so well known for sharing.

“When I’m in my 80s, I hope to be as open and thoughtful and funny and engaged as Don Simmons was,” Mayor John Engen said.

Don and Pat Simmons celebrated their 61st wedding anniversary on July 1, on Don’s birthday.

He made his mark as a music instructor but Don was a singer, and all three children grew up singing, said the oldest, Elizabeth Simmons-O’Neill, now a teacher in Seattle. David Simmons is a singer-songwriter in Missoula and Kim “J.K.” Simmons of Los Angeles parlayed a Broadway music and acting stint into a successful movie and television career.

Don Simmons maintained his own Facebook page, and its postings on Monday and Tuesday reflected a heartbroken Missoula. They talked of his kindness, his generosity, his warm heart and the sadness his death has wrought. “I love you, Don Simmons,” state legislator and former Poverello Center director Ellie Hill wrote Monday evening. “You are the real deal. You stood by me unconditionally at the Poverello Center Inc. and into politics. The world is better because of you. I am better because of you. It’s raining in Missoula right now just for you.”


Simmons, who was born
and raised in rural Illinois, moved his family to Missoula more than 40 years ago to chair the UM music department and serve as choral conductor and music educator. He retired in 1995, but remained an encouraging mentor and fan of students and faculty alike.

His post-retirement music appreciation classes, on campus and more recently in the senior continuing education program MOLLI, were universally popular.

“The kids just adored him,” said Maxine Ramey, director of UM’s School of Music. “He had our recital hall packed with students. It holds 400 and there were 400 there. They just didn’t ever miss his classes.”

“I’ve gotten many emails from faculty members who are incredibly saddened,” said Stephen Kalm, dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts. “You just appreciated not just his support to show up at a concert or a recital, but he’d come backstage to talk to the students and faculty about their performances. He’d remember what they did before and tell them where they improved.

“That sort of engagement is unusual at any age, and it’s kind of cherished.”

And it spread beyond campus.

John Torma, another close family friend, has interacted with Simmons on a professional level at the Missoula Children’s Theatre for nearly 20 years.

“He’s been such a booster of the arts and music in particular,” Torma said. “It’s been a joy knowing he’s part of that community, even when he’s not holding any kind of formal or informal role in it, just knowing he’s there.”


Don and Pat Simmons
lived on Connell Avenue in the University District, and among their community contributions was the ice cream social icebreaker at the start of each school year, to foster better relations between students and neighbors on campus.

Tester got to know the Simmonses during the 2006 campaign, when his son Sean was a student at UM and Pat and Don were “surrogate parents.”

“Every time I was around Don and Pat (since) they always ask how Sean was doing, and they did that with everybody. He always tried to connect to people in campus.”

Ginny Merriam, the communications director in Engen’s office, said she thinks of Simmons as a “professional citizen.”

“He was so interested in anything that builds community, and he was always doing things himself to connect people with each other,” Merriam said.

Engen said he got to know Don and Pat “on a whole number of fronts – Pat and all her good work downtown, and her work with the police department as police commissioner for many years, and Don’s work at the university first.”

He served with Don and Pat on the Friends of Flagship board working on after-school programs, and noted their contributions with United Way.

Don was, Engen said, one of his role models.

“What I learned from Don and what I hope to become as I age is a guy just like Don, who is always open to new ideas, who believes in giving young people every opportunity to be fantastic human beings, and who is generous of spirit and wallet and intellect and talent.”

A memorial service for Simmons is set for Sunday, Aug. 5, at 11 a.m. in the UM Music Recital Hall.

Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 406.523.5266 or at

To honor Don’s legacy, a memorial scholarship has been established at The University of Montana in his name. For those who wish to contribute, donations may be made online, or by calling the Foundation at 800.443.2593.