New Scholarship Honors Beloved Music Professor

When beloved music professor Don Simmons passed away in July, Missoulian reporter Kim Briggeman began an article commemorating his influence with these words: "Missoula has lost its role model."

As chair of the music department, he modeled leadership—and after his retirement, he modeled passion, continuing to teach popular classes. He modeled support as a fixture in the audience for performances. And he modeled community involvement through Missoula Children’s Theatre, countless arts organizations and even the establishment of an annual ice cream social to bring together University students with neighboring homeowners. As his son, J.K. "Kim" Simmons, says, "I don’t know many who have been able to attain the same level of humanity, intelligence, caring and generosity of spirit he had. At least a little of it has rubbed off on a lot of people, including myself."

The newly established Don Simmons Music Education Scholarship ensures that his legacy as a role model will continue long into the future.

Maxine Ramey, current director of the School of Music, recalls her first introduction to Don in 1992. "He’d retired from teaching, and from being the chair of the Music Department, but he still had his hand in teaching big groups of kids; you always saw him with a sea of students just hovering around him," she says. "The music appreciation course was always packed because he had this persona, and this theatricality—a voice that could command 400 kids. It was electrifying to see him in there."
Don Simmons

That love of performance was passed along to his children. Elizabeth Simmons- O’Neill ’78 teaches community-based courses at the University of Washington. David Simmons ’83 is a musician, teacher and theater professional in Missoula. Kim ‘78 is a University of Montana Distinguished Alumnus and an actor in Los Angeles. All three, it should be noted, graduated with degrees from The University of Montana.

"Dad definitely had a stage presence," says Kim, "He had a charisma and a presence, and a passion for teaching young people." Kim speaks in the rich, deep voice many people fondly associate with his father.

Kim remembered the time when his father’s influence and impact became real to him.

"I was in my late twenties, and I came back to visit. My dad was teaching the music appreciation course then, and I walked into the balcony of the Music Recital Hall to watch the second half of his class. That’s when I realized I was seeing aspects of him I hadn’t noticed. I immediately thought, ‘Well, that’s where my brother and I get our love for performance.’ But he wasn’t just up there being a charismatic presence. Every time he taught that class, he opened up kids’ minds to music they’d never appreciated before," he says. "The class couldn’t have had a better name."

Following his passing, the Simmons family immediately thought of the students he loved so much. "Pat and Elizabeth met with me, and they felt strongly that it should be something related to music education," Ramey says. "They were thinking about the bigger picture, in the same way Don always did. Some 90 percent of music education students stay in Montana to teach, so it’s giving back, developing something that’s perpetual. Dedicating the Don Simmons Scholarship to Music Education was about giving to the future of music and the arts in Montana."

Don met his wife, Pat, 65 years ago at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill. "We sang together in church and school choirs then and have been friends, as well as lovers, ever since," says Pat.

When summing up Don’s philosophy, life and impact, Pat turns to the words of Kahlil Gibran in The Prophet, which says a true teacher "does not bid you enter the house of wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind."

Generations of students and faculty and community members can thank Don Simmons for instilling that philosophy in them, and the scholarship that bears his name ensures future generations will be able to do the same.

Pictured above: Pat and Don Simmons.