Through President James “Jimmy” Simmons tenure as band director, music professor, and dean of the College of Fine Arts and Communication, he brought pride to the Lamar University music program through “the Grandest Band in the Land” and the creation of Lamarissimo! He has also helped to kick-start many successful music careers, according to many of his friends, colleagues and former students.
Simmons’ improvements to Lamar did not stop with the music program, however. He and his wife, Susan, were integral contributors to the aesthetic makeover of the campus itself. Their relationship started out as a blind date and led to a marriage that has lasted more than 44 years. It is a partnership that will impact the Cardinal nation for years to come.
Dr. Simmons, who was named the 10th president of Lamar on Sept. 1, 1999, said he took over a campus that was in less than desirable shape.
“It was pretty run down,” Dr. Simmons explained.
Susan, a 1968 graduate of Lamar, said that even though her husband had been working for the university for almost 30 years at the time, she didn’t really notice how bad it looked until the couple moved on campus.
“When it becomes your backyard, essentially, to get any exercise you have to walk the campus,” she said. “It was just in deplorable condition.”
“We had 12 consecutive years of declining enrollment, which means declining funding,” Dr. Simmons said. “We had several priorities — one of those was beautifying the campus. My wife took that as her mission.”
“We needed students,” Susan said. “In the real estate business, you can’t even get a customer to get out of the car and go into a house unless it has curb appeal. To get people to come (to a university), it’s got to be good looking from the outside. If you don’t have money to build new buildings, you can at least clean up the buildings you have.”
Susan applied her realtor philosophy to the Lamar campus. Her 25-year background in real estate made her invaluable, said Camille Mouton, Lamar University vice president for university advancement and long-time friend of Susan.
“She had a wealth of experience,” Mouton said. “We got a free decorator.”
“She’s my unpaid architect and ground supervisor,” Dr. Simmons said. “We outsourced the ground crew, and she was on them 24 hours a day making sure this was trimmed this way and this was mowed that way.”
“There were no other females except Camille (Mouton),” Susan said. “So if something needed to be decorated or designed they called me and asked me ‘What do you think?’ Well, I didn’t hesitate to tell them what I thought.”
Susan said Jimmy and she would argue about what needed to be done.
“He finally said, ‘Make a list. Write it down,’” she said. “So I would walk the campus and make a list in a spiral notebook, and I would have half of that notebook filled with stuff that I had seen that needed to be done.”
Susan’s mission, which she said has taken 14 years to complete, started with simple things like edging, landscaping and litter clean up.
“The grass was grown over the sidewalks,” Susan said. “It was hard to get the grounds people and me on the same page. I’d say, ‘Edge.’ and they’d say, ‘Mrs. Simmons, we have edged.’ And I’d say, ‘No, you haven’t.’ I wanted them to cut a straight edge down the sidewalks, not edge flat with a weed eater.”
“One subcontractor that went on to do landscaping, gardening and finishing credited her with his success because (she taught him) her desire to make it perfect,” Dr. Simmons said.
“We had all these huge ligustrum bushes,” Susan said. “You couldn’t see the buildings. You couldn’t see people going in and out. Not only did it look like a mess, it was a security hazard.”
Susan and her ground crew trimmed all the sidewalks and had the ligustrum bushes pruned to give them a clean look. However, trash and cigarette butts littered the campus, Susan said, and the next step was to get students to care about the cause.
“I said, ‘We’ve got to get the kids involved,’” she explained. “We got all the people in the Setzer Center and all the different sororities, fraternities and organizations together. We called the program Cardinal Quest Cleanest Nest. We had signs made and each organization was given an area of the campus that they were responsible for. They were metal signs, and they were good looking, so they got to put their groups’ names on them in a certain area. So it also gave them some pride and recognition in who could have the cleanest area.”
But Mouton said that Susan didn’t stop there.
“We had all different colors of beige brick on this campus on different buildings, and she got all of those painted,” Mouton said. “It all blended.”
“There was no pattern (to the buildings). I think it must have been leftover brick from World War II,” Susan said. “The brick was all different colors — yellow brick, muckledy-colored brick, red-orange brick and red brick. We painted all the yellow brick a taupe color and left the orange-reddish brick alone.”
Susan’s stylish influence included choosing the Louisiana look of the Cardinal Village and residence halls, the warehouse facelift of Mirabeau’s restaurant in the Setzer Center and the front-porch feel of the dining hall, Mouton explained.
“Dr. Simmons’ vision was that he knew that in order to grow this campus, we had to be able to recruit students from outside the Golden Triangle,” Mouton said. “First, we built the dorms. That was Susan’s first involvement in building. She wanted that southern charm feeling. That was in 2001, and we’ve since built five residence halls that consist of 40 different buildings.”
The next step was to build a suitable dining hall for the students.
“You have all these students on campus — 2,500 living in the dorms. They needed a nice new dining hall, not one that was built in the ’60s and seats 160 students,” Mouton said. “When we first started building it, she said, ‘These plans look like a funeral home. We need porches. We need it to look inviting.’ She gave it a bistro look with great décor.”
The art wasn’t from New York, San Francisco or even Houston or Dallas, however.
“I said, ‘Let’s ask if they would purchase the art from the (Lamar) art auction,’” Susan said. “It was a wild, hair-brained idea, and they agreed to do it. The people who got the contract invested back in the university by buying the student art, and it gave those kids a permanent place for their art to be displayed.”
With two parts of the building and renovation plan completed, Mouton said it was time to address the third.
“We needed a great place for students to stay, a great place for them to eat, and a great place for them to play — and that’s the (Shelia Umphrey) Recreational Sports Center.”
Susan made her creative presence known once again, Mouton said, this time in many aspects of the sports center’s renovation including colors, design, flooring and other details.
“She’s got such a flair and such great taste. She was very involved in the colors and making it attractive,” she said.
And that cardinal painted on the wall of the $19 million recreation sports center has a touch of Susan on it as well, said Mouton, who explained that Susan wanted to make sure the eye had just the right shade of green.
Dr. Simmons credits his wife for more than just her contributions to the Lamar campus makeover, however.
“She’s a terrific lady,” he said. “Almost four nights a week, a president and his wife are involved in some kind of social function — sometimes seven. To have a partner that keeps a calendar, that shows up with you, that helps you with all your community and fundraising efforts has been a terrific asset for me.”
“It’s obvious how much she loves Lamar,” Mouton said. “She has just been a wonderful partner for Dr. Simmons.”
Susan said that the numerous social events have taken a toll on the couple and might have been a factor in Dr. Simmons’ decision to step down as president.
“Just within the past year, I’ve noticed,” she said. “I’m four years younger than he is. If I’m tired, he’s got to be.”
“I have spent almost 43 years at this institution,” said Dr. Simmons, who will turn 71 March 17. “I love this job, but I’m ready to enjoy some other things. I have nine grandchildren now. I want to spend some time with my family.”
As part of Lamar tradition dating back more than 16 years and like many of the first ladies before her, Susan now has a campus garden named after her. It’s just behind the James M. “Jimmy” Simmons Music building.
“It’s my last garden project,” said Susan, who has been working on the garden so that students will have a serene place to study.
Susan reflected on 14 years as first lady.
“It’s been a fabulous experience,” she said. “The people we’ve got to meet — Benazir Bhutto, Tony Snow, Jed Bush, George Bush, George (Bush) Sr., and President Clinton — we never would have otherwise got to meet. Who would have ever thought a little girl from Beaumont, Texas, would be visiting with the president of the United States?”
Although her reign as Cardinal queen has almost reached its end, Susan said she has some parting advice for future first ladies.
“I just hope they love this school as much as we have over the years,” she said. “It’s a wonderful, wonderful place — the faculty and the students. Care about it and be yourself. It’s not a job. It’s your life — a part of you.”
Kevin King can be reached at (409) 832-1400, ext. 225, or by e-mail at kevin [at] theexaminer [dot] com.