Nan Nelson Simmons: ‘Beautiful’ inside and out

Nan Nelson Simmons of Pine Bluff marked a number of achievements in her life while raising her two children, improving the lives of others as a speech pathologist, serving her community as a volunteer and stepping up to not only assume command of her late father’s business, Knox Nelson Oil Co., but lead in its expansion.

However, she may be most remembered for her “beauty.”

“She was a beautiful woman,” Mayor Debe Hollingsworth said of Simmons, a “close friend” who died Friday, July 26, 2013, at 63 after battling cancer the past 19 months.

“She had physical beauty as well as a beautiful spirit and a beautiful heart,” Hollingsworth continued. “She was a gracious woman whose compassionate actions always spoke louder than her words. She was a great businesswoman, but more importantly, she was a wonderful Christian lady.”

Simmons was born here on March 17, 1950, to the late Knox Nelson and Nancy Cearley Nelson. Her parents had trying childhoods, growing up poor. Knox Nelson — later to be described by Gov. Mike Beebe as a “natural leader” — was determined that his family would fare better financially. To initiate that quest, Nelson became the owner and operator of a service station.

Simmons said recently that some of her earliest memories involved her father coming home from his job “smelling like gas and oil.”

Nelson’s service station progressed into the Knox Nelson Oil Co., which was founded 50 years ago in 1963, five years before Simmons graduated from Pine Bluff High School. Nelson’s drive and reputation propelled him into politics, and he became a long-time state senator who was regarded as one of Arkansas’ most powerful legislators.

“He really liked to help people, and criticism rolled off his back,” Simmons said of her father.

Meanwhile, Simmons earned a master’s degree in speech pathology at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville after briefly attending Arkansas State University in Jonesboro. After a number of years in public education and working in the mental health field, she took over her father’s company as chief executive officer.

The once small firm has grown to include operations in several other states, but remains headquartered here.

Simmons said her business skills resulted from her parents’ influences, and true to her reputation, she also credited the company’s staff for her and the business’ successes.

While Simmons — survived by son Andy Simmons, daughter Ashley Perry and four grandchildren — was already appreciated for her verbal skills in encouraging others, her illness energized her as a writer. After her diagnosis, Simmons — a First United Methodist Church member who had earlier co-authored a couple of cook books — began a public blog on the web site.

“Her writings about her illness encouraged others in theirs,” said her pastor, Rev. Dennis Fleming. “Her words meant a lot to many people.”

Fleming admired Simmons.

“It was a privilege to be her pastor and an honor to be her friend,” he said. “She epitomized the life of a disciple.” He added that Simmons “served God and others willingly” in all her tasks, and her personality and strong desire to aid others sometimes caused people to momentarily forget that she might need support because of her illness.

Fleming and the congregation especially enjoyed Simmons’ abilities as a choir soloist. She also benefited Trinity Episcopal Church and its rector, Rev. Walter Van Zandt Windsor.

“She had a profound impact on our church,” said Windsor. “Her faith and the way she lived and the courage that she showed were always so uplifting.”

Funeral arrangements will be announced by Ralph Robinson and Son Funeral Directors, where Adam Robinson was personally touched by Simmons’ life and death.

“She was one of the best friends I’ve ever had,” he said, recalling Simmons’ volunteer efforts with the Arts & Science Center for Southeast Arkansas and other community organizations. “We’ve been friends since we were children.”

Hollingsworth said Simmons won’t be forgotten.

“Nan had such a kindred spirit,” said the mayor. “And she lived in that spirit. She was everybody’s sunshine.

“She had a favorite phrase — ‘Enjoy the present,’” Hollingsworth concluded. “She was always so busy doing just that that I don’t think she ever stopped to think about how many hearts she had touched and how many lives she had made better. That’s a quality of character that cancer can’t ever beat.”