A few figs from thistles…
by Howard A. Tabor
Ghosts of Christmas Past: 1960
Looking back on the 60s, it’s hard to recall the optimism I felt as a young man looking into his own future. The U.S. was deep in the Cold War; we had spent much of the 50s deluding ourselves that it was possible to survive a Soviet nuclear attack; but the economy was robust as unemployment headed toward a decade low of four percent. I had a job at Cliff’s Garage, and high school was only a pain in the ass most of the time. For Christmas 1960, I had added two people to my short heartfelt gift list: Willie Simmons and his wife Lillian.
It’s not easy to wrap an umbrella and maintain an air of mystery about it; the antique teacup and saucer were less problematic. My sister Catherine solved the matter of delivery by driving in to Des Moines with friends the weekend before Christmas. So I hitched a ride and found my way to the Simmons’s small apartment near downtown, arriving unannounced on Saturday afternoon. A pleasant hour of tea and conversation ensued before I had to find Catherine for the drive home. It was a gentle day at the opening of a tumultuous decade.
Willie and Lill
William A. Simmons Jr. was about seventy-five when I met him at Cliff’s Garage, an odd addition to the usual suspects who occupied a bench on the building’s sunny south side. Late spring through mid-September, a constantly changing cast of characters populated that homemade bench. From 11-ish into the late afternoon, customers, friends and the local constabulary dropped in and out for gossip and access to the community coffee pot. Unless someone was on their way to a wedding, funeral or to church, the dress code was decidedly casual, which made Mr Simmons stand out all the more: he was a thin, delicate, meticulous man always in a conservative three-piece tweed business suit and fedora, regardless of the weather. Mr Simmons accorded me the honor of calling him Willie. But as someone sixty years his junior, that familiarity took a while to sink in.
Working for a brokerage firm in Des Moines, Willie’s clients were scattered across Iowa’s northwest quadrant, from Ames and Fort Dodge to Sioux City. Cliff Pherson was one of his small investors in the new market of mutual funds, which gave me the opportunity to eavesdrop on market strategies. One Saturday afternoon, Willie explained the rudiments of a free-market economy and managed, somehow, to make capitalism sound less like money-grubbing greed than I’d begun to suspect. Cliff let me read his copies of the Wall Street Journal. Then, in November of that year–1960–Mr Simmons helped me make my one and only investment in the stock market: one hundred common shares of the Boston & Maine Railroad. I turned a profit and doubled my college fund.
On hot afternoons, Willie would remove his suit coat, revealing suspenders typical of someone born in 1879. From Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood, he came to the Midwest in the heady 1920s and somehow evaded the worst of the Market Crash and Great Depression; if he offered details for those years, I don’t recall them. He did provide an intimate glimpse just once, near-tearfully revealing the death of his first wife from cancer, which made my afternoon of tea and pleasantries with Mr and the second Mrs Simmons even more poignant.
Shortly after that impromptu Christmas visit, Willie retired from the business. I hope he had made at least a few shrewd investments along the way.
He’d certainly made one in me.