Remembering Jack Simms

img_0061In the summer of 2003, I was on a weekend visit to Auburn, preparing to move down and join the faculty.

Trapped in Comer Hall parking lot by a thunderstorm, I called Jack Simms.  As we talked, I told him, “Jack, my goal in coming to Auburn is to be to my students what you were to us.”

That would be a huge challenge, because of what Jack meant to Auburn journalism and its students over his 18 years as department head and the years that followed.

For those of us privileged to be his students, he was the ideal professor, mentor and friend, and he made sure that the faculty members he brought on used the same approach.

Jack’s first year was my freshman year, so I benefited from his classroom instruction and his mentorship as I worked on The Auburn Plainsman.  But it meant even more, these past 13 years, to be his friend.

As we Auburn journalism majors graduated, and so many of us went on to distinguished careers and syndicated columns and front pages and Pulitzer Prizes, Jack was our most treasured cheerleader.

Yet he never talked about himself much.  We had heard about Iwo Jima, but it wasn’t until he showed me an unpublished manuscript within the past few months that I realized what he had experienced.  The manuscript refers to a point during the battle where Jack and a fellow Marine had gotten separated from their company, the result of poor communication.  Amidst the smoke, grenades, mortars and rifles, they still managed to rejoin their company, and he survived.

In class, he never mentioned how, as an AP reporter in Tampa, he talked himself aboard a rescue ship that was heading toward the site of a private yacht fire in which young people from several prominent New York families died.  Or how he also got aboard the ship that had picked up the survivors and interviewed them.  Or how he tossed his film from the ship to a co-worker standing on the dock after the rescue ship returned, dodging quarantine rules.  This was heroic journalistic stuff.

Having returned to Auburn, I got to spend time with Jack, whether at our Friday morning breakfast group or at various journalism gatherings.  If we had driven together to Birmingham or Atlanta for an alumni meeting, it meant sitting patiently (often with his wife, Jo), waiting while he talked individually to each student.  They meant that much to each other.

His decline was noticeable and worrisome over the past few months, but it had its moments.

The first was his 90th birthday party, moved up to October to take advantage of the bye week.  (That’s where the picture above was taken.)  So many showed up, and Jack’s family did a great job of roasting him but also telling stories like the one above. And again he took the time to greet each guest and friend who approached.

The second was just three days ago, when Jack was brought to the field for the military appreciation halftime show.  He had told me earlier in the week that he didn’t know if he could make it, but he did, and accepted the crowd’s grateful cheers. And he still looked so darn rugged.

Those two, combined, would turn out to be our last chance to say goodbye to Jack.  We suspected as much, but it still made us glad and grateful that we were able to.

And now the torch has completely passed to those of us who learned from Jack.  Each of us fulfills his legacy in our own way — myself as director of the journalism program.

Intimidating?  A little, but not too much.  By his teaching, and by the example of his life, Jack prepared us well.

The Kick Six and Me: An Oral History

I have seen several oral histories of the Kick 6, so I thought I would quickly jot down my memories of that night.  Add your own as comments, if you’d like.

I was at the top of Section 44 with a friend, Christie, who was at her first Auburn football game ever.  We had seen Sammie Coates catch the pop-pass and run it in, and we had booed with indignation when the officials restored one second to the clock.

I watched the attempted field goal, and from my side of the field, I had no idea that Chris Davis was back there.  I realized that he had caught the ball and started running it out.

My first thought was, “How quaint.  This player thinks he actually can do something fielding the field goal, and he is running fast too.”  I honestly thought he would be tackled and we would head to overtime.

Davis cut to the sideline, and I recall, from my view in the end zone, that when Cody Mandell and Dee Ford crossed in front of Davis, it was like a curtain opening and revealing Davis running toward the end zone.

As that curtain opened, it unleashed a noise as a huge wave cascading from all over Jordan-Hare, and we were all going crazy — cheering, hugging, screaming.

Two weeks before, after the “Prayer at Jordan-Hare,” I had tweeted, “I cannot believe what I have just seen.”  So I tweeted, “Again, I cannot believe what I have just seen.”

Our side of the stadium was not allowed on the field, so we got gridlocked in the stands for a while.  Like Mike Szvetitz quoted in the Opelika-Auburn News, I could not believe that they played “Celebration.”  A 1980 song?  Really?

For the next couple of days, I heard from relatives who did not even care about football (or so I thought) telling me they had seen the kick and they thought it was great.  I realized this was a moment shared with the college football world and the country, an unbelievable play.  Those of us who were there became fortunate witnesses to history, and were glad to share in it.

The next couple of weeks, Auburn was like Disneyland, the happiest place on Earth.  I remember seeing a campus tour pass in front of Tichenor Hall that next week, and everyone was gazing around them in wonder.

I realize we are mocked, often from another side of the state, for continuing to celebrate this moment.  But this was a moment for all Auburn to celebrate, and seeing YouTube’s of fans celebrating, both inside the stadium and at home, reminds me of that bond.

For those who were watching at home or in a restaurant or bar, the moment was theirs as much as ours in the stadium.  I still get choked up with joy watching it.

 

Auburn President Dr. William L. Broun: No Heritage of Hate

BrounWith the renewed focus on the Confederate battle flag and what it symbolizes, schools and other public institutions in the South are also taking a look at their history.  Do colleges and universities, building a tradition of instilling the highest values, harbor in their past individuals who worked against principles of equality?  Do they honor these individuals by naming buildings after them?

Clemson is facing such a debate over the legacy of Benjamin Tillman. Faculty have demanded a building named after him be renamed, particularly in light of the recent calls to remove the Confederate battle flag from the state capitol grounds.

It’s a valid debate, and the answer is rarely simple — 100 percent in one direction or the other.  But it doesn’t hurt to ask.

Take, for example, Auburn’s fourth president, Dr. William L. Broun, whom Broun Hall is named after.  Before coming to Auburn, the Virginia native fought in the Civil War.  Should Auburn be concerned?  It’s a valid question.  Let’s read the evidence.

A graduate of the University of Virginia, Broun was actually headmaster of a private school in the state when war broke out.  He did not serve in a combat position, but was superintendent of ordnance for the CSA army, at the rank of major.  He was later promoted to lieutenant colonel and named commandant of the Richmond arsenal.

Some war historians claim that Broun issued the last major command of the conflict — the order to blow up the arsenal before advancing armies could arrive, shortly before Lee’s surrender.

But what about Broun’s attitudes toward issues like slavery?  Did his views reflect the region’s racial hatred of Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era?

We are fortunate that the library has a book of Broun’s life and words, assembled by his family after his death, on its shelves.  It’s an excellent starting point (and saves the hassle of going through his papers).  The book is titled “Dr. William L. Broun,” and its call number is LA2317 .B7A3.

Broun did in fact speak about the Civil War, on Memorial Day in 1891.  In recalling the discussions leading up to the war, Broun reminded his listeners of the personal turmoil he and members of the UVA community faced.  Theirs was the legacy of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, in intellect and politics.

Broun told his audience, “Slavery was not the cause of the war; it was the occasion, not the cause.  It was not for silver and gold, not for slavery, not for property in any form, that your fathers suffered the hardships of four long years of war.”

He claimed, as many have since then, that the cause was “to maintain what they regarded the rights of the States.”

Broun did not leave it there, however.  Later in his speech, he declared, “But in the wisdom of an omniscient Providence the question of the right of secession, thus referred to the arbitration of the field, was decided amid the thunders of artillery irrevocably and forever.”

In his opinion, the United States would continue as a sovereign unified country —
one people, one nation, under one flag.”

So while Broun would seem to side with those who sidestep the slavery issue, he definitely saw secession as a dead issue, post-war.  But did Broun have personal experience with slaveholding?

Broun and his father-in-law, Dr. George Fleming, bought a plantation in Houston County, Virginia, during the war, and Broun moved his family there.  Apparently Dr. Fleming was a slaveowner, and his slaves were sent to the plantation.

“When my wife reached there she found the old servants that knew her well, and they were all glad to see her,” Broun wrote.  “They regarded us as their protectors after the war was over, and I hired them for the next year, preparatory to planting cotton.”

While these can still be problematic words to some, they are certainly preferable to the racial hostility expressed in the late 1800s and early 1900s by Alabama politicians, some of whom have buildings named after them.

Beyond that, nothing of Broun’s that is included in the book — in correspondent or memoir form — addresses race-related topics.  He does show a progressive spirit, advocating for the education of women at Auburn during one non-dated baccalaureate address and does so without condescension.

Broun’s most enduring and visible contribution to the campus is the reconstructed Samford Hall, which was built after its predecessor burned in 1887.  He also was behind the renaming of the University from Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical to Alabama Polytechnic Institute.

But his most important contribution might have been his role, as one of the South’s most respected educators, in building Auburn’s academic reputation.  When he died in 1902 at age 72 — while getting ready to go to work — colleagues and journalists hailed his life and work.

In discussing Broun’s life, it must be acknowledged that other building namesakes do not fare as well, on balance, particularly those named after Alabama governors.

The racist speeches of Gov. B.B. Comer (1907-1911), for whom Comer Hall is named, are easily found, as is his family’s usage of leased convict labor — an inhumane system that he perpetuated as governor.

And Gov. David Bibb Graves (1927-1931, 1935-1939), for whom Graves Amphitheatre is named, though progressive in his philosophy, used his Klan leadership to political advantage and blocked his attorney general from prosecuting floggers, though he resigned his Klan membership soon after he was elected governor.

But their legacies deserve a deeper treatment, and they are not as closely tied to Auburn as Broun was.

When Dr. William L. Broun’s life and legacy are examined, it’s wrong to categorize him with the Benjamin Tillmans.  True, he was in many ways a product of his times, but his times — and Auburn — were better because of him.