Cardinal Cadence Fall 2012

Susan Simmons and Lamar University:

Susan Simmons"It's who I am."

Call Susan Simmons the first lady of
Lamar University.
Call her a fearless, tireless leader in
campus transformation.
Call her a force for change – tangible and intangible – that has shaped Lamar for
more than 42 years.

Boldly, she championed a warehouse look for the Mirabeau’s eatery in the Setzer Student Center by taking out the ceiling. Louisiana-style architecture at Cardinal Village. Porches on the dining hall so it looked and felt like home. Just the right red in the Dauphin Athletic Complex, And the exact shade of green on the eye of the Cardinal in the Sheila Umphrey Recreational Sports Center.

Susan (Williams) Simmons ’68, has played a leading role in campus landscaping and building design. “That came from the real estate business,” she said. “You’ve got to have curb appeal, or you’re not going to entice anybody to come inside.”

When Jimmy Simmons announced he would step down as president in 2013, he thanked his family—especially Susan. “They say that behind every man stands a woman,” he said. “Well, Susan doesn’t stand behind me. She stands right beside me. You will never know how much impact she has had on my presidency and what she has done for this university.”

Reflecting on her role, Susan says, “The thing I feel best about is the way the campus appears and the way the buildings look—that Lamar now has a real campus feeling.”

Assessing her husband’s accomplishments is more difficult. “There are so many. He’s totally rebuilt this university from the ground up. I mean, we didn’t have suitable dorms. We didn’t have a dining hall, except for an old, undersized cafeteria. We didn’t have a rec sports center at all. We didn’t have an athletic complex. There’s no way to narrow it.”

In terms of intangibles, Susan points to Simmons’ leadership ability: “The way he is a consensus builder . . . his attitude about people . . . the way faculty and staff work together. Maybe that’s the thing he’s accomplished that’s been better than anything else. Everybody is on the same team.”

The Simmonses have shared the spotlight for more than four decades, orchestrating a bright future for the university while contributing time and considerable talents to Southeast Texas and achieving professional success in worlds of arts, education and business. Susan has been a leader in community organizations while also working as a realtor, teacher and business owner. The couple married on June 2, 1968, beginning a life together focused on family—and a deep affection for their hometown, the region and the university.

An astute businesswoman and creative catalyst, Susan is a devoted wife, daughter, mother and grandmother. When the Simmonses relinquish their roles as president and first lady, they look forward to spending more time with family: daughter Jennifer, her husband, Danny Lehane, and their children, Meg, Anna, Rachel and Thomas; twin sons Matt, his wife, Becki, and their daughter, Madeleine; and Mike and his wife, Nikki, and their daughter, Lily. He and Susan now await three more grandchildren – including twins to Matt and Becki—as both of their daughters-in-law are expecting in January.

Susan has been a realtor with American Real Estate more than 25 years, with honors including Realtor of the Year and Multi-Million-Dollar Producer. She owned and operated the Caterpillar, Beaumont’s first upscale children’s shop, and assisted in the family construction company, applying her artistic talents to coordinate floor plans and design.

She has served as president and debutante chair of the Symphony League of Beaumont, solicitations chair of the Junior League of Beaumont, social chair of the Neches River Festival and on boards of the Art Museum of Southeast Texas, Beaumont Family Services and other groups.

Susan and Jimmy met on a blind date, arranged by her friend Kelli Maness. Then the Beaumont High School band director, Jimmy proposed five months later. Susan transferred from Texas Tech to Lamar, graduating in 1968 with a degree in elementary education and beginning professional life as a teacher at Fletcher Elementary School. Having pledged Zeta Tau Alpha at Tech, she became active in Lamar’s alumni group and remains involved as a member and mentor.

Between their first date and the “grand finale” of Simmons’ presidency, there have been many milestones – and moments to remember. One came Feb. 9, 1999, when regents of The Texas State University System unanimously selected Simmons to become the 10th president of Lamar.

“I cried with happiness,” Susan said. “I can’t describe the feeling – the pride, the excitement, the responsibility. It was a very emotional and overwhelming day.”

Since Simmons’ arrival on campus in 1970, Susan has been immersed in life at Lamar, serving as president of the Lamar Women’s Club (later the Lamar University Club), as founder of Cardinal Lights and in many other projects. And how did that change when she became first lady?

“It really didn’t. I just kept going. I’ve just had more people asking me to do things. And then I’d be in a meeting and somebody would want to paint something brown, and I’d say, ‘Nooo. We don’t need another brown building. Really and truly, as president’s wife, the very first thing I did was helping clean up the campus,” she said, pointing to improvements like cutting bushes, trimming, edging and painting the buildings.

Cardinal Village, the dining hall, the Sheila Umphrey Recreational Sports Center, Dauphin Athletic Complex and Mirabeau’s all reflect her talents, in design, colors, flooring and other decorative details.

During construction of the Dauphin Athletic Complex – where she regularly donned a pink hard hat specially provided for her. “You should have seen me – on the lift under that high ceiling. They had painted it Cardinal red, but the lighting made it look like UT orange. There was no budget to repaint it, but I said, ‘You cannot leave this thing UT orange.’ I talked them into doing it, but it had to be the right color of red. I got into that bucket truck and went up to the ceiling. People would walk in and say, ‘What are you doing?” I’d say, ‘I’m matching red paints.’ That was fun.”

The renovation of Mirabeau’s was Susan’s trail-blazing effort. She was involved in every aspect of the project. “I happened to be walking through the Setzer Center one day, and Mirabeau’s was awful. I don’t know how else to say it. I asked Jimmy if he could do something, and he said, ‘What do you want to do?’ I said, ‘We could paint the walls and take the ceiling out to give it that warehouse look. Nobody wanted to. They couldn’t believe I was going to do that because people hadn’t seen that a lot. They said, ‘Ew, do you really want those ducts and pipes to show?’ I said, ‘Yes, I do.’” The result was a high-tech, happening place, with exposed air-conditioning fixtures and pipes, a concrete counter and glazed walls adorned with modern posters.

Cardinal Village was a major undertaking—and set the stage for other enhancements. “I wanted it to have a Southeast Texas look,” she said. “Here we are, right on the Louisiana border, and Beaumont probably has more of the feel of Louisiana than of Texas. So I said, ‘If we’re going to build anything new, let’s make it look like Louisiana. So we developed the residence halls first and, once we had that concept, we carried it over to the dining hall.

“It was first drawn without the porches because of the cost,” Susan recalls. “And I said, ‘It looks like a giant funeral home.’ So we went to battle over the porches, and I finally won. I have a thing for porches. I love porches because they invite people in.”

With sleek, clean lines, the use of metallic fixtures and surfaces and artful lighting, the dining hall is a campus attraction. One source of pride is the original art gracing its walls. “We had a budget for art, and I told the decorator, ‘Instead of spending money in Dallas or Austin, why don’t you come to the art auction at Le Grand Bal and buy student and faculty artwork.’ And she did. She picked the pieces she liked and bid on them, and the money all came back to Lamar and the artists.” More student and faculty art adorns Cardinal Village.

“For ‘The Sheila,’ we came up with a design based on what was there in the beginning—the steel work and all . . . I told the designer I wanted Cardinals everywhere, a lot of red, and one day I went in there and saw she had someone do the Cardinal logo in tile on the floor. It was wonderful.”

Susan’s current project is restoring the garden between the Music Building and Science Auditorium “ so it will be a pretty, pretty place for our students to sit and read and study.”

Jimmy Simmons has said many times he considers the students his greatest legacy, and Susan, naturally, shares that sentiment. “That’s where your investment is,” she said. “If you’re going to invest in something, you’re trying to graduate students who come out of here and contribute to society. That’s the most valuable thing that comes from a university.”

Animated and expressive when recalling the excitement of each of her many projects and life at Lamar in general, she becomes silent, pensive and almost tearful when asked what her many years at Lamar, including those as first lady, have meant to her.

“It means a lot. It means getting emotional,” Susan said. “It’s been 42 years – my entire married life. It’s what our kids are, what our relationship with one another is.

“It’s part of your being. All the history. And all the people who have had an influence on your life,” she said. “I’ve loved every minute of it. It’s who I am.”

by Louise Wood
October 2012