Sitting at the dining room table of Jean “Sister” Simmons, one can’t help but to feel a sense of nostalgia. With stacks of photos from years gone by, Simmons delightfully recounts a life well spent. From photos of her 90 year-old home prior to renovation to her granddaughter’s nuptials at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, Simmons glows with pride.
But she doesn’t delight most in her own accomplishments. It’s the success of her family and her community that thrills her most of all.
Reared in Monroe, Louisiana, Simmons is a graduate of Neville High School and Sophie Newcomb College, now part of Tulane and the first coordinate women’s college in the United States. She received her bachelor’s degree in music education, grades 1-12, and her masters in administration. She earned a specialist’s degree in elementary education, a gifted certification, and, in 1990, a Ph.D. in early education and administration.
Married to Dr. Heber Simons, Jr., the couple moved to Jackson after his graduation from the University of Tennessee Dental School. The school saw a need for a wider referral area for his practice and they came here in 1962.
Their home, a beautiful two-story property on Senecca Avenue (added to the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places in 2018) was not always the showplace you see today. “We saw wonderful potential,” she said. Renovated five or six times since then, each room is an homage to their travels to Japan, Hungary, Africa, London and beyond. A kitchen floor hand painted by Mark Millet and doors from the former Beth Israel synagogue are beautiful touches in the home’s decor.
Simmons received a call in 1979 as she was teaching in public schools from Dr. Robert Fortenberry, to put together Power APAC, Jackson’s performing arts school. Simmons traveled the country, visited schools and put together APAC in 1982. She was an educator there for 17 years. “We were lucky enough to be recognized in 1988 with MS Arts Commission’s Governor’s Awards in the Arts,” she told us. In 1997, she was recognized as arts educator of the year from the Mississippi Arts Commission.
The school celebrated 30 years this past spring with a ceremony at the Belhaven Center for the Performing Arts. Power APAC has been recognized by the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., as one of the four outstanding arts schools in the nation.
A life well spent and lived? Not enough for Simmons. Though she retired in 1999 from the education world, she
doesn’t slow down. She is a past board member of Grace House, an organization dedicated to “living and dying with dignity with AIDS.” Her son, attorney Heber Simmons, III was instrumental in helping the Episcopalian Diocese of Mississippi acquire the organization.
In 2002, Simmons became chairperson of the Security Association of Fondren, or SAFe, and contracting the services of a private security firm, Securitas, to provide motorized neighborhood patrols, out of town watch services and member assistance. The organization, she said, has been successful. “They have made a great deal of difference.”
A former board member of Fondren Renaissance Foundation, the Mississippi Opera Board and the University Press Book Friends board, Simmons believes in giving back. “It’s a real privilege and honor to do what I can to further the neighborhood, city and state,” she said. Simmons is currently a docent for the Mississippi Governor’s Mansion and the Eudora Welty house in Belhaven.
Being involved so much helps her to cross paths with other difference makers on a regular basis. She names Jimmye Sweat, Scott Overby, Jeff Good, Erica Speed, Charles & Claudia Hauberg, William Mounger and Mary Jo McAnally as those she sees changing Jackson. “They are people of vision,” she said. She calls them “interesting people whose lives mean a great deal who have done spectacular things.”
As for the neighborhood she calls home, Simmons spotlights Symphony at Sunset, Fondren After 5, art shows at the Cedars and the Zippity Doo Dah® weekend as favorite activities she sees bringing visitors – and excitement to our community. “And just look at the churches, schools and restaurants we have here,” she exclaimed.
Years and years from now, Simmons said she hopes memories of her will be fond. “In the world of education and community life, (I hope others will say) our family has played a small part in the betterment of Jackson, Mississippi.”
Originally posted in 2012, the story was updated in August 2018 to reflect the National Park service designation.