We've arrived at yet another Best of Missoula celebration, that time of year when we honor everything that makes our little mountain community so awesome. But our hearts weigh heavy this time around. This week, Missoula lost one of its defining souls, a man who loved his neighbors, gave himself to his community and baked one hell of a cheddar biscuit. On July 9, Don Simmons died at the age of 84.
Simmons was a familiar face around Missoula, unfailing in his attendance at events ranging from Osprey games to post-election gatherings to Forward Montana's Progressive Happy Hours. Alongside his wife, Pat, he stood vigil on the Higgins Avenue bridge nearly every Tuesday for five straight years to, as Simmons once told the Indy, keep "the foolishness" of the U.S. invasion of Iraq squarely in the community's mind. "It just felt like Don was Missoula's grandfather," says former Forward Montana CEO Matt Singer.
"They're right up there among Missoula's first couples of philanthropy and volunteerism," says Susan Hay Patrick, CEO at United Way of Missoula. Don was a former board member and longtime donor to United Way.
Simmons's greatest passion was music. He was chair of the University of Montana's music department for 14 years, developing courses in music appreciation, and he remained active with music education long after retiring from the university. Current music chair Stephen Kalm recalls frequently seeing Simmons offer words of encouragement to students and faculty alike at UM concerts.
"He truly was a larger than life figure in the community," Kalm says.
The grief over Simmons's death was substantial this week. City council members, legislators, nonprofit leaders and former students voiced their goodbyes online, calling Simmons "caring," "supportive" and an "amazing" and "wonderful" man with a "youthful, unquenchable spirit." On July 9, "there was a wave of sadness that I hadn't experienced in Missoula since Hal Fraser died," Patrick says, refering to another legendary local activist. "My staff was in tears, people at the mayor's office."
It seems only fitting that, as we celebrate the Best of Missoula this week, we remember one of Missoula's best. Rest in peace, Don. There will be music in Caras Park soon.