Thursday, April 30, 2009

A Death in the Family

Don Simmons at the races, which he dearly loved>

My friend Don Simmons died Monday and this one is difficult to take on two different levels, though it was hardly unexpected.

Don had been fighting the effects of alcoholism for years and I'm not certain he ever entirely shed the demon that simply destroyed his health a little at a time. He talked frankly about his addiction, always positive that the "cure" was just around the corner, but today he'd enjoy one more drink. Don was like so many alcoholics--of which I am one--in that he was extremely bright, in love with life, a marvelous talent at nearly everything he did and a warm and loving friend.

Don's AA sponsor--a guy who helped usher me back into the fellowship 15 years ago next month--told me recently, "You know I really like Don, but he's not going to make it. I hate to say that about anybody, but sometimes there's just nothing that will take." With Don, that was pretty much the story. And, frankly, I fully understand the grip of this disease, which for me is a living, breathing, shadowy threat standing just around the next corner holding a baseball bat and waiting for people like me--the addicted. We never win. We just delay.

A man named Mike Gangloff, whom I don't know, sent the following note about Don (which was delivered to me second-hand):

"I learned this evening that former Roanoke Times reporter Don Simmons Jr., known as Mick to many of his friends, died in his sleep Monday night at his and his wife Candice's home in Rocky Mount. He worked at the New River Bureau from I think about 2001 until early 2005, covering Pulaski County, and wrote many great stories.

"Besides being a reporter and editor, Mick was an excellent musician, dancer, cook, gardener and painter. For more than 20 years, off and on, he played 'country and eastern' music with a band known mostly as Petey & the Hellcats, writing original music and covering everything from Parliament-Funkadelic to John Coltrane to Led Zeppelin to the Carter Family, often in the same set. He had lived in New York City in the late 1980s and was friends with hip hop figures and DJs from that era. Closer to home, he loved to wander through fiddlers conventions flat-footing to whatever grabbed his ear.

"A couple years ago, after being diagnosed with liver disease, Mick ordered a guitar from famed Grayson County luthier and musician Wayne Henderson. He told Wayne that due to his health, he didn't have time for Wayne's notoriously long waiting list (Eric Clapton's order famously sat for a decade). Recently, Wayne delivered the guitar and Mick told me several times how much he was enjoying playing it.

"A memorial service is scheduled for 2 p.m. Sunday at the Evergreen church on U.S. 21 just south of Wytheville."

Don and Candice had recently moved to Rocky Mount and he was eagerly anticipating doing some more writing for the FRONT. He was working on a Rocky Mount-based story and was excited about it. Don had been named "Contributor of the Month" for a piece he did on the town of Floyd in, I think, our third or fourth issue. It was a story that simply sang with his voice, a lovely piece of writing from a man who understood these mountains and our people as well as anybody I've ever known.

It's going to take me a while not to think of Don when a story idea comes up that requires the touch of a master storyteller because that's what he was and that's what he wanted to be.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, I am shaking as I read this article as I am just finding out about Don's death almost 2 years after the fact. I knew Don in his NYC days and always found him to be the most sensitive, caring, creative, interesting and ALIVE individual I had ever known. He had a great flow about him and whenever I got hung up in my words, he would say, "go ahead, pontificate!" I am very sad to hear of his passing, I hadn't seen him in a while, but I will miss him dearly as a memorable part of my time on this earth.

    S. Kaldon