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Simmons tapped for Phi Beta Mu Bandmaster Hall of Fame

Lamar University President James Simmons has earned another elite honor with induction into the Phi Beta Mu Texas Bandmasters Hall of Fame.

In selecting Simmons to become part of the Hall of Fame’s 2012 class, the international bandmasters fraternity continues its tradition of “honoring outstanding Texas band directors whose dedication and devotion to their profession was paramount.” 

Phi Beta Mu made the presentation July 22 at the Texas Bandmasters Association annual convention in San Antonio.

“This puts me in the record books with my mentors,” Simmons said. “You also look around and see students you have mentored who are members of this group. And you see future students who are out there who will become members of this Hall of Fame. So it’s very significant to me.

“I’ve been through many different events in my career, but for this one, I was extremely nervous. As I stood before a packed roomful of band directors and colleagues whom I had known throughout my career and have the utmost respect for, being recognized in that manner was extremely touching and satisfying.” 

Membership in the Hall of Fame originates with nominations received from a variety of sources, including the general public, music educators and Phi Beta Mu members. A standing committee reviews candidates and makes the selection, honoring music educators who have produced and maintained consistently outstanding band programs. 

Simmons holds a unique position among the nation’s top educational executives. An accomplished musician on clarinet, saxophone, and piano, he continues an active performance and conducting career after rising through the ranks as a music educator and administrator to become Lamar’s 10th president.

Val Rose, a friend and colleague for more than 50 years, nominated Simmons for the honor. The two were roommates when Simmons began his college career in 1960; the two were fellow band members and Rose an early mentor.  

“He was a very influential band director, in this part of the state especially,” said Rose,  retired Nederland High School band director and also a Hall of Fame member. “His bands at Beaumont High and at Lamar – his marching band, concert bands and jazz bands – all were outstanding. He is widely respected for the success of those groups.”

Rose said Simmons’ ability to change from one music genre to another, “quickly, smoothly and very professionally,” is one attribute that makes him an outstanding musician and leader.

“He’s also a superb teacher. A lot of people have seen him performing – and he’s a great performer. But he also is a master teacher. I think that’s probably the outstanding thing,” Rose said. “And, of course, it’s very rare for someone to be a band director and end up a university president. What he’s done for Lamar is fantastic, and I’m just so proud to have known him for these many years.”

“President Simmons’ credentials speak for themselves,” said Gary Wells, retired Hamshire-Fannett Band director and secretary-treasurer of the Phi Beta Mu Alpha (Texas) chapter. What does not show up on any resume, he said, is the way Simmons helps talented students overcome obstacles. Citing two examples, Wells said, “Dr. Simmons took them under his wing, gave them the encouragement and resources they needed to succeed and then monitored them until they received their degrees.”  One is working on his doctorate, and the other is a musician in the United Kingdom.

“I believe these are the type stories that never end up in print but, nevertheless, reflect on the character and caring of Dr. Simmons,” Wells said. “His attitude has permeated the culture at Lamar and is the reason for the success that has been achieved.”

A member of the faculty and leadership team at Lamar for more than four decades, Simmons served as dean of the College of Fine Arts and Communication, as interim executive director of university advancement, as music department chair and as director of bands. Simmons joined the faculty in 1970. He earned his doctorate in music education from McNeese State University, his master of music degree from the University of Houston and bachelor of music education degree from Memphis State University.

Citing his most important career milestones, Simmons begins with the first Superior rating his Crockett Junior High School Band earned in University Interscholastic League competition.

“We took a group of students who ultimately followed me from Crockett to Beaumont High School to Lamar,” Simmons said. “That particular group of 10 or 12 students – you can imagine how close you become with the group that followed you for that much of your career. I was fortunate enough to move with them as they moved up. 

“We made the first First-Division that I think they’d ever made at that school with a group of students who were dressed in blue jeans and T-shirts because we didn’t have any money to buy uniforms. It was the only First Division given in the region that year. It is something I look back on with great pride.”

And, Simmons said, “When I was selected to come to work for Pete Wiley – who was himself a Hall of Fame band director – was another real high point in my career. That appointment was so special. And being appointed president. These were real turning points in my life.”

Simmons’ former students have achieved international success and speak highly of their teacher and mentor. “Watching Lamar University grow and flourish under Simmons’ presidency is a true pleasure,” said saxophonist and Grammy-winning composer-arranger Don Rollins, a 1983 Lamar graduate. “Looking back at my years as Jimmy’s student is like looking back at my father; the older I get, the smarter he seems.”

“He taught us a lot more than just music. We who experienced Lamar through him agree that his leadership and encouragement helped not only to launch our careers, but our lives as successful teachers, musicians and human beings,” said veteran educator and musician Donnie Todd, a trombonist and 1979 Lamar graduate. 

With Simmons as coach, quarterback and head cheerleader, Lamar revived the tradition of Cardinal football in 2010 after an absence of more than two decades. With football came the “Showcase of Southeast Texas” marching band, which invigorated another tradition: Lamar’s 350-member “Grandest Band in the Land,” which Simmons directed beginning in 1970.  The Simmons’children – daughter Jennifer and twins Matt and Mike – were raised at the football stadium, his wife, Susan, recalls.

Simmons’ thoughts often turn to the era when he continued the legacy of band directors like Arnold Whedbee, Ralph Hale, Pete Wiley and Karl Wadenpfuhl and then passed the tradition to Wayne Dyess, Barry Johnson and others, most recently Scott Deppe. “My favorite thing was the exhilaration you have the night of the performance when people are so excited about it and giving the band standing ovations, and the kids are so happy and proud.”

As a student at Beaumont High School, Simmons played running back and safety on the football team and ran hurdles in track. He was a leader in musical groups – such as Jimmy Simmons and the Corvettes – and was a member of the 1960 All-State Band.  He also enjoyed the rare experience of performing with the jazz band and studying clarinet at Lamar. After a stint at SFA and receiving a bachelor’s degree from Memphis State, he earned his teaching certificate from Lamar and became band and orchestra director at his high school alma mater (Beaumont High), as well as director of the Purple Queens drill team.

Throughout his educational career, Simmons has attracted acclaim as a musician, backing up or performing with a Who’s Who of headliners, including Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Marvin Hamlisch, Dinah Shore, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Barry White and Joe Williams, to name a few.  

Simmons made international musical history in 2001 when he became the first university president to be featured soloist before the Texas Music Educators Association for a concert conducted by Barry Johnson, then Lamar’s vice president for student affairs. He continues to draw applause as featured soloist at the university’s innovative  Lamarissimo! concert series, which Simmons initiated in 1990 as music department chair. 

On numerous occasions, he has served as guest conductor for the popular Fourth of July concerts performed by the Symphony of Southeast Texas. His ensemble is also a popular attraction at the annual Beaumont Jazz+Blues Festival, which honored him as the inaugural recipient of the Dr. Raul Ornelas Lifetime Music Achievement Award “for his contributions to music and for being an exemplary citizen and ambassador to the city of Beaumont.”

Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, the oldest and largest music fraternity for men, honored Simmons in 2010 as a Signature Sinfonian. Also in 2010, the Christus Health Foundation of Southeast Texas paid tribute to Simmons at its 30th annual gala, billing him “Beaumont’s own king of horns” as he shared the spotlight with Chicago, featured attraction for the evening.

The Press Club of Southeast Texas has twice honored him as Newsmaker of the Year (1999 and 2009), as well as naming him Newsmaker of the Decade. The Beaumont Chapter of the American Heart Association honored Simmons and his wife, Susan, with the Jay C. Crager Award, bestowed on an individual or individuals whose endeavors exemplify making the community a better place in which to live.

As Lamar president, Simmons has led the university into a new era of dynamic growth. Momentum has been the watchword of his administration, a period in which enrollment recorded its largest increase in Lamar’s 89-year history, with more than 14,500 students in fall 2011.  Even in the wake of two major storms – Hurricanes Ike in 2008 and Rita in 2005 – Simmons and his team kept classes and graduation on schedule, restoring the campus after major damage and adding state-of-the-art facilities. In spring 2008, Lamar University launched its first comprehensive campaign, “Investing in the Future,” with the ambitious goal of $100 million. Nearing that mark in January 2012, the goal was increased to $125 million. 

“At Lamar University, the musician sits in the president’s chair, and it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. . . . Jimmy Simmons’ band is just a whole lot bigger than it used to be,” according to a profile. “What Southeast Texans have seen in Simmons for all of his adult life, whether directing a band, teaching music or playing in a jazz band, is what they still see.”