Back in 2002, in an attempt to build a bridge between University of Montana students and neighboring homeowners, a small group of locals pulled together an informal ice cream social along University Avenue. The relationship between campus denizens and nearby residents had always been tense. The gathering proved an effective salve, likely due to the dedication of a couple fondly referred to as Missoula’s grandparents: Pat and Don Simmons.
It was during an organizing meeting for one of the socials that Matt Singer, a student at the time, first met the duo. He was struck by Don’s giant grin and the “twinkle in his eye.” Pat maintained a quieter presence by comparison, but the two complemented each other perfectly. Singer remembers Don arguing passionately in favor of building a stronger community in the University District. The speech was distinctly civic in nature, but the Simmonses couldn’t help spinning a political pun.
“The thing that was sort of classic Pat and Don Simmons was they referred to this organizing committee as the Ice Cream Socialists,” Singer says. “They just always had their way of being about community but never forgetting their political selves either.”
Missoula mourned Don Simmons’ death in July 2012. Earlier this month, on Feb. 8, Pat also passed away, marking an end to a local era.
Pat and Don represented different things to different people in the community. For Singer, who co-founded Forward Montana in 2004 and now lives in Portland, Ore., they were a calming and familiar presence at the young progressive group’s first legitimate fundraiser at the Catalyst. Even those unfamiliar with their local work recognized them as the parents of famous actor J.K. Simmons. For students at UM, Pat and Don were the people to turn to for guidance and reassurance.
“Everyone knows Pat and Don for their work supporting Missoula’s downtown and its arts community, but I will remember them most for helping young folks, including my son Shon,” says U. S. Sen. Jon Tester. “Pat and Don were ‘surrogate parents’ for many Montana students, encouraging them to get involved in their communities. They were good people who worked to make Missoula a better place, and they will be missed.”
Pat worked with the Montana Arts Council and served for years as executive director of the Missoula Downtown Association during the organization’s infancy. She also served on the boards of dozens of groups, including Headwaters Dance Company, the Flagship Program and A Carousel for Missoula. She volunteered with United Way, the Missoula Symphony, and was a longstanding member of the Missoula Police Commission. MDA’s weekly Out to Lunch program in Caras Park? Pat’s idea.
Her work often happened alongside Don’s own extensive volunteer and professional efforts. The former chair of the UM music department also served as a board member at United Way, the Missoula Symphony and the Five Valleys Memorial Society, among others. As Missoula City Councilman Jason Wiener puts it, Pat and Don played such a role in shaping Missoula that the city is in many ways a “reflection of their work.”
“What was striking for me was that they were people with such profoundly deep roots in the community, but who were always willing to embrace ways in which the town was changing for the better,” Wiener says. “You don’t always get those two things.”
Politically, the Simmons seemed capable of swinging an election with a single endorsement. Mayor John Engen calls it the “Simmons bump,” a powerful vote of confidence that city officials, state lawmakers and even Tester can attest to.
“Frankly, you could never meet a candidate, never have a candidate knock on your door, never read a lick of information about that candidate, but if they had the Pat and Don seal of approval, you knew they were good people of integrity who were going to do their best to do the right thing for this place,” Engen says.
The community’s respect for the couple could be seen following Don’s death in 2012. After a heartfelt memorial in UM’s music building, civic leaders and community members lined up in droves inside the University Center ballroom to offer Pat their condolences. So large was the crowd that the Simmonses’ son David assumed the role of bouncer, pausing the queue occasionally to give Pat a chance to eat.
A community memorial for Pat will take place April 19 at noon in the UM Music Recital Hall. The Simmons family has encouraged donations over flowers, specifically to the United Way, the Poverello Center or a music education scholarship established in Don’s name. The sentiment is yet another nod to the lasting impact the couple have left in Missoula.
“Pat and Don Simmons in Missoula were the best example that I had in my life of what beloved community means,” Singer says. “You don’t have to give up fighting for your principles in order to live alongside your neighbor, and you also don’t have to reject neighbors who you disagree with in order to fight for your principles. You can smile at everyone and be friendly and love your city, and you can also fight to make it a place you want it to be.”