George Lewis “Fess” Simpkins
December 2, 1908-March 31, 1981
Special guest columnist this week is Mrs. Faye Simpkins who wrote this beautiful story back in 1981 after her beloved father-in-law’s death. It continues the theme of my last two columns about Avondale Mills villages and how the people who lived there enriched our lives. Faye writes lovingly of a man who often expressed to me the qualities that made her perfect for his only son, Buddy. I met Fess Simpkins in the third grade at Main Avenue School patiently teaching a group of rag-tag kids band. I fell in love with the one I dubbed “the trumpet man.” He influenced my life more than any man I knew except my Dad. I soon met Buddy when I went to the high school in 1954 and then David. All three were outstanding band directors, church music directors, and community leaders. Fay was an outstanding English/literature teacher at Sylacauga High and then at CACC. And so, enjoy this story of a very special man; it is a treasure that began in Pell City, not so long ago at that.
Special thanks to the Simpkins family (Faye and Buddy) and to David for the pictures.
Fanfare For A Legend
Lewis “Fess” Simpkins
Written by Mrs. Faye Simpkins
He lived among the laboring folk in a wooden house like the ones next door—four rooms square- with a cotton mill behind. Although he was strong and bright, his pants were too often torn, his knees cut and bruised from falling down. If darkness caught him away from his street, he could not tell which house was his, and the neighbors knew it was his voice calling to Paw for help in finding his way home. He was the first born of nine children living in the house. Suffice it to say, they were very close. One day a friend told Paw what the family already knew, “The lad is night blind and can’t see very well in the day.” They knew the boy would miss a lot in life. Now, Paw could play the fiddle and guitar really well and the clarinet too, but he did not allow the kids to touch those valuable instruments. Paw worked in the mill, but on weekends his little country band played for dances, one of the few community activities available in such a small village. Whenever the youth found an opportunity, he slipped away with Paw’s guitar and taught himself to play it. He knew he would be in big trouble if his father discovered this. One night Paw was sick and could not go to the dance. The rest of the band was distressed because the dance would have to be cancelled. Just then the tiny boy blurted out, “Paw, I’ll play in your place.” And he did. Late that night, someone led the little fellow home through the dark and muddy streets. The people at the dance had filled the guitar with coins as he played, and the weight of that was exhausting. They just would not let him stop playing—it was so delightful to see an eight-year-old child play so well. As he fell asleep in his father’s arms, the guitar strap still around his shoulder, Paw saw that the little fingers had been bleeding from the stress of the guitar strings. All this and Paw didn’t even know he could play! The mother had kept her son’s secret. Thereafter the prodigy became a regular member of the band. The sweet sound of applause had brightened the dimness of his eyes. Life is a casting off, and it was time for the young man to leave home
to find some kind of work that he could do. In another town, he became director of the mill band at the age of sixteen. Paw and the other band men had helped him learn to play all kinds of horns by that time. He later went to military academy on a fellowship to finish his education and to direct the academy band. He had trained his other senses to compensate for his eyes, and finally the boy became a man. During the Great Depression and World War II, he lived by his talent. For half a century he directed mill bands, scout bands, dance bands, and high school bands. The doctors had given a name to the sight problem by then—retinitis pigmentosa, complicated by cataracts. They said he should have been totally blind by the time he was twenty-one, but he had been too stubborn for that They said he should be declared legally blind, but he would have none of that. After he had his first cataract operation, he could see telephone lines for the first time, and he felt a miracle had been sent to him. In his stern and military way he continued to teach and to play the trumpet, the horn which he had come to love best, in churches and in concert halls. He made the same mistakes as any other ordinary man. He struggled with himself and with his fellow man. Often he stumbled and fell and got up and laughed about it and played another song or taught another group of boys and girls, men or women, whoever—whoever wanted to make music. Music was a compulsion. His house was filled with awards that he and his students had won—awards from mayors, governors, and presidents. Still those who marveled at this success said, “How unfortunate. I’ll bet he misses a lot.” True—he never had a formal music lesson, and he never attended college, yet he was offered a job as band director of the largest university in the state when he was only twenty-nine years old. He was one of the real pioneers of public school music in the whole Southeast—the last of his breed. Yesterday, beside his grave, I saw hundreds of people, standing at attention as if they were waiting again for a whistle to signal the band to play. There were friends and relatives, men and women who had been children when they obeyed his baton. I saw his wife who had walked with him through fifty years and who had understood the symphony in his heart. I saw his daughter who was crying loving tears as only a daughter can. I saw his son who had paid him the greatest compliment by loving and working in
music, too. I saw his three grandchildren strain for one final grin from their beloved Paw-Paw. I saw his brothers and sisters remembering how he had become both father and friend to them. As I left that hilltop green, I could not help but think how great a man-so brave and kind and strong. There was a victory in the air—a miracle indeed that God had blessed him with at least a little vision all the days of his life. He had been an instrument, empowered to plant a song in many hearts. Of the things that matter most in man’s life, the observers had been wrong. This amazing man surely had not missed much.