The man behind the bow tie


by Michelle Hartmann, Photo Editor

You’ve probably seen his face around campus. He’s probably said “hi” to you as he passed by.

But passing by the president of Simpson College doesn’t help anyone understand who he is and what he does.

President Jay Simmons is a soft-spoken man, who is known to students for his cheerful bow ties and warm southern drawl.

First impressions lead to the idea that he may not be the dynamite Simpson needs to get through tough times. What students don’t see, though, is the spine of steel and resilience behind the bow tie.

Originally from Muscle Shoals, a town of 6,000 in northern Alabama, Simmons grew up in an area similar to the Quad Cities. After high school, he went to Birmingham-Southern College, a small, liberal arts college, for his undergraduate degree in political science. Simmons then attended the University of Alabama for his master’s and doctorate degrees in political science.

Attending a college similar to Simpson and working with similar institutions was how Simmons found his love of the liberal arts education. Being able to preside over one allows him to really have an impact on something he believes in.

“I know what an experience a place like Simpson did for me,” Simmons said. “Not only did it completely change my own understanding of the world and myself, I met my wife there, my family started there.”

“Everything I can point to that I value in terms of my education commitments and that I value in terms of my personal life all came from that experience,” he said.

These experiences don’t really give students a solid idea of who he is. He has all of the technical qualifications and the polish of a well-spoken politician.

But what does he actually do?

Alumna RaeLea Jones guessed Simmons spent a majority of his day in meetings.

“I would assume that he is in meetings most of the day. Either here on campus, on the phone or out of town,” Jones said.

Each day, the president starts off his morning at 4:30 by going to the gym. After, he goes home to get ready for the day ahead at school. Appearing in the office around 8 a.m., Simmons almost always has a bow tie. Each bow tie shows a different part of Simmons’ personality.

His collection includes a red and gold tie and a blue baseball tie to show his loyalty to the Kansas City Royals.

Upon reaching his office, he generally has around an hour to catch up and prepare for the day.

After spending an hour trying to get as many of his own items in order as he can, Simmons spends much of his time in meetings with administration, faculty, staff and anyone else who managed to grab a little bit of his time.

Brenda Wickett, assistant to the president, tries her best to get Simmons time where he can catch up on emails and prepare.

She is the equivalent to the statue outside of Dumbledore’s office; without the password, you won’t get in. Without talking to Wickett, it’s difficult to schedule time with him.

“It’s always busy around here. Sometimes it’s boring and sometimes it’s exciting. Finding time to get everyone some of his time can be very hard. Everyone wants his time,” Wickett explained.

Just because the president has obligations to all of these meetings doesn’t mean it’s impossible to get time with him. In three hours, there were two staff members, with no meeting scheduled, who needed a bit of his time. He was willing to take the time and let them in for whatever they needed.

Watching Simmons go through different meetings revealed several aspects of his personality. During interviews, he is talkative and takes time to explain things in great detail.

However, it’s easy to tell he thinks through his answers.

With members of faculty or staff, this becomes more pronounced, and he was more reserved. In a one-on-one with a staff member, he became an active listener, rather than dominating the conversation.

Simmons has two distinct thinking and listening positions. In the former, he’s leaning on the table with his hands fidgeting, twisting his wedding ring. After three to five minutes, he would switch to leaning back in his chair with one elbow on the armrest and his other resting in his lap.

In large meetings he appears to be a supporting actor and lets others talk problems out. When he weighs in on the issue, he is always direct and to the point. Simmons didn’t waste time dancing around an issue. He would state the reality of the situation, add his thoughts and let the meeting continue.

Meetings all day might sound fun to some, but Simmons has more on his plate.

There are budgetary concerns, athletics, academics, fundraising, faculty, alumni and more. As of last month, he needs to find a temporary replacement for Academic Dean Steve Griffith, and then search for a permanent one.

All of this and then some is just his job.

He also has to find time to have a personal life, and according to his wife, Jenné, it can be hard.

Many times he has to leave the state, which doesn’t allow for much of a personal life.

After his first year at Simpson, the couple agreed he needed to spend a little more time at home. They made a deal to try to get one evening a week where he could be home at a reasonable time and not have any engagements.

The president was also supposed to try to get one weekend off a month with no obligations. When asked how these ideas were working, Jenné Simmons let out a laugh.

“It is not working well,” she revealed. “He’ll start filling up all his time, and I’ll go, ‘Jay, didn’t you say you wanted to take a day?’ But he loves his work.”

On a good day, Simmons will arrive home around 5:30 p.m. Most nights end up being sometime after 6 p.m. In addition, there are many nights where he and his wife have to attend a dinner and won’t get home until 10 p.m.

Imagine going from 4:30 a.m. until 10 p.m.

Having a day, or even a couple hours, to relax is hardly possible.

Simmons is still trying to find an effective way to balance his work life and personal life.

Having a job that requires attention for roughly 12 hours every day and most weekends would be tough on anyone. Traveling, meeting with a variety of people and trying to see his family doesn’t leave him with a lot of extra time.

However, he believes that Simpson is worth all of the time to prepare the college for the future.

“For all of the difficulties that higher education is experiencing right now, whether it’s at a public institution or a private, I really continue to believe that Simpson is better positioned for these next few years than just about anybody else out there because we’re in a great location,” he said. “We’ve got the endowment to see us through some tough times if we need it, and we have a faculty, staff and student body that are absolutely committed to the success of this college. For all of those reasons, I can’t think of any other place I’d rather be than Simpson College.”