Simms reported on a recent visit to his physician who checked over the beloved 84-year-old charmer and pronounced “Cliff, you’ve had a good life.”
Simms flashed that well-known twinkle in his eye and roared, “No, Doc, I’m having a good life. I’m not done yet!”
He’s certainly not.
For an hour and a half Simms, who is kind of a cross between Garrison Keillor, Socrates and Mark Twain, literally had a crowd of 75 gasping for breath with his humor, insight and remarkable memory of Rockdale’s colorful history and characters from the past eight decades.
Simms had the audience in the palm of his hand even before they filed in to hear the first of two special programs at the library.
HEAVEN—Simms knew Rockdale’s most famous writer, George Sessions Perry, and told the crowd that much of Perry’s works were based on a pair of local men, Jimmy Ellis and Mike Lee.
“They were two uneducated people and two of the smartest people I’ve ever known,” Simms laughed.
Simms repeated a well-loved story of Ellis getting married, moving to a Houston neighborhood and receiving a visit from the local preacher. “If you don’t have any plans for the weekend, I’d like to see you in my church,” the preacher said.
“Thanks, preacher, but I’m going to Rockdale Saturday and that’s as near heaven as I ever want to get,” Ellis replied.
Simms discussed some of his famous “road trips,” including the time he and 10-year-old Kenny Harris hitchhiked to Houston to see Joe Louis fight at the coliseum.
Another time, Simms and some buddies went to New Orleans on a jazz pilgrimage and “discovered” a trumpeter at a bar called “Curly’s Neutral Corner.”
“ This big fat guy got up and started playing, and could he ever play,” Simms said. “It was Al Hirt. We always said we discovered him.”
Many of Simms’ travel stories seemed to involve his getting stranded in Hearne while hitchhiking either to or from Rockdale.
“Man, it was hard to get out of Hearne,” he recalled. “I’d rather be (hitchhiking) in San Antonio than in Hearne.”
TIDE, POOL—Some stories involved the late, legendary Harry Harris. (Introducing Simms on Thursday was Harris’s daughter, Leanna Applegate.)
Simms was working at a downtown Rockdale store and a storm was brewing on the horizon.
“Harry came in and bought a box of Tide, cost him 12 cents,” Simms said. “He walked outside, tore off the top of the box and sprinkled Tide all over his car. “I looked funny at him and he explained, ‘Cliff, I’m heading into that storm.’ He was washing his car.”
Another story involved Harris shooting pool in Lexington. “He got on a roll and made six or seven amazing and difficult shots in a row,” Simms recalled. “Then he barely missed on an almost impossible shot.
“He just flipped the cue on the table, walked out like it was nothing, turned and said, ‘You know I missed a shot just like that in Kansas City.’ He had people follow him down the street. They’d never seen a pool player like that.”
‘ GRAHAM BOY’— Simms recalled several of Rockdale’s characters from past decades including the unforgettable street resident R. B. Daniels, who slept in a wheelbarrow and wore a long overcoat right through the summer months.
Daniels died tragically, and mysteriously, when he was struck by a vehicle at the corner of Main and Davilla.
Simms believes he knows who was responsible. “ They were drinking at Ma Crane’s (tavern) that night and they were headed that way,” he said. “But there couldn’t have been anything done about it. I’m sure they were so drunk they never knew it happened.”
Of course one of Rockdale’s biggest characters was its resident multimillionaire, H. H. “Pete” Coffield, who employed Simms for many years.
“He was always asking me, ‘Simms, how can we make some money’,” Simms said. “One day, I was ready for him. I had seen a rock concert and I told him we should have one. So we started booking talent, big talent, people like Willie Nelson, who was just starting out.
“Mr. Coffield had seen somebody on television and he wanted us to get him for the concert. He said we should get ‘that Graham boy.’
“We didn’t know who he was talking about. Miss Josie (Palmer) and I mentioned everyone we could think of and finally we wondered if he could be thinking about Billy Graham.
“Mr. Coffield said, ‘ That’s it, that so-and-so can sure draw a crowd’!”
The roaring audience caught its breath just long enough to ask Simms if the concert was ever held.
“Yeah,” Sims said, wiping tears of laughter from his eyes. “It was a big flop.”
EDUCAT ION— S imms touched on his three-week college career at what was then called Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos.
Or more precisely, he discussed its end. “I snuck out of class one morning, went to the highway and hitchhiked to the race track in Del Rio,” he said. “I decided this (school) wasn’t for me.”
Simms recalled a Rockdale-area crowd got an education of its own at one memorable meeting.
“This Austin radio personality named Jimmy Jeffries had come to Friendship to try and raise money for the Boy Scouts,” Sims recalled.
“They had wired the seats with electricity. Jeffries said, ‘Whoever wants to donate to the Boy Scouts, stand up,’ and they hit the juice.
“Everybody stood up except J.W. Garner who gave it this (Simms twisted his torso) and rolled off to the side.”
Then there was the time election clerk Simms voted a family with 15 children, for his candidate, in a local election.
“I wrote down the dad and mom’s names and then drew a line and started writing down the kids’ names,” he said. “They asked what time the kids needed to show up to vote. I said not to worry, I’d do it for them.”
“That might not have been on the up-and-up, but it was fun,” Simms laughed.
‘FORTUNATE’—But Simms closed on a serious, and sincere, note.
“I’ve had some great times and known some great people,” he said. “I’ve lived every day of my life in Rockdale until I went to the nursing home eight months ago.
“I feel so fortunate to have been a part of all this.”