Things were a little different back then, in the late 1960s, the early ’70s.
So many of us believed we had to adhere to the cinematic image of reporters — drinking, cussing, smoking, gambling. Not that those practices were exclusive to the news fraternity any more than every member of same felt obligated to indulge in any or all of such pastimes, or vices (sometimes there were others, even less sanctioned in Scripture). Well, we were younger. The work was fun — still is — and so were the pastimes, or vices, or we thought they were.
One of the funnest was the Friday night poker game in the Associated Press bureau, then in cramped quarters next door to what was then the Arkansas Democrat. If it wasn’t the Oldest Established Permanent Non-floating Card Game in Little Rock, it would do. It commenced around ten p.m. or so, when the news flow (including, in football season, the high school scores) were fairly wrapped up. There would be a half-dozen of us, drinking and cussing and smoking and gambling. I suppose the A.P. bureau chief, gone for the weekend, knew of the aggregated blasphemies and wrote them off as morale-building.
One Friday night in particular I’ll never forget. Twice in one night — twice — the A.P.’s evening man drew to a full house. In both hands, in defiance of all laws of probability, I had drawn to four of a kind.
It was the only time in memory I beat Bill Simmons at anything.
No one beat Bill Simmons, not very often, in nailing a story.
Even if his name doesn’t register, his work did. For longer than three decades he was the A.P.’s man at the State Capitol, sometimes angering the political class, at a minimum discomfiting it. As a wire service man Bill’s byline only infrequently appeared in the Arkansas newspapers the A.P. served, and probably never on the airwaves of its radio and television clients. It was Bill’s reporting, however, that provided news agencies from Clay south to Chicot and west to Miller and north to Benton, all the counties in between and states beyond, with the stuff of Arkansas government and politics. Detail and nuance, in crisply written packages machine-gunned with an aging Underwood or telephoned to a re-write man who, reviewing Bill’s dictation, discovered there was precious little, or no, rewriting to be done.
After leaving the A.P. he became a bit less anonymous: for almost 15 years his byline signaled to readers of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that political editor Bill Simmons was working for them still, with the same set of skills, the same sense of fairness and accuracy, that had made him the envy of us lesser competitors and the constant nemesis of the self-important, the pretenders, the miscreants.
Bill could golf with a governor on Saturday and then, come Monday, hammer him for playing footsie with the facts. In pursuit of truth he sometimes could seem, sometimes could go, over the top, irritating his staff and co-workers, not to mention candidates and the bureaucracy. Better over the top than never near it.
In 44 years of friendship I could never guess how he had voted in any race. Not that I asked, nor that he necessarily would have answered.
If even now you don’t know Bill Simmons, know that you owe him.
About a score years past, if memory serves, Bill made some changes in his life. What brought it about was none of my business so I never asked. He left behind the smoking, drinking (to may knowledge it had never been excessive), swearing and gambling; and while maintaining his journalistic values, he became a profoundly spiritual person, his faith, new or rekindled, soon enough leading to his ordination and, part-time, the pulpit.
Even before his epiphany, if it was that, Bill always was first on the phone in the worst moments of my life (and I suspect in the lives of others), ever sympathetic, consistently encouraging, always reassuring — never judgmental or condescending, and certainly not proselytizing, for that was not his way. He lived his faith; it was not to be seen on his sleeve. His offers of prayer for you or yours were whispered, not announced.
A couple years ago cancer claimed the Jane that Bill and their children loved, and without “the kindest person in the world,” as he described her, his already delicate health began to worsen. Diabetes, and its collateral issues. He went to the newsroom less frequently and more often worked from home, where he lost the struggle on October 29.
Bill told me on more than one occasion that he loved me. Not in that locker room macho man-love model, but as one human to another, one pal to another, quiet, soulful. I hope I told him as often that I loved him.
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Steve Barnes, a Pine Bluff native, is host of Arkansas Week on AETN.