Statement from Executive Director C. Morgan Grefe:
Yesterday I learned that we just lost someone very special. Not just special to the Rhode Island Historical Society, but special to this world. Professor Bill Simmons – a trustee of the RIHS for nearly 20 years, and an ardent supporter of learning in all realms – passed away on June 2 after a long and hard-fought battle with cancer. I had known who Bill was since my time at Brown in graduate school, though the first time we met did not portend anything great.
You see, I love cowboy boots. I collect them, in fact. It started when I was working on my dissertation in Wyoming and I haven’t looked back. Actually, I look back quite a lot, and one of those times I was in a classroom in Wilson Hall at Brown. I turned around when something struck my chair and saw this great pair of boots. I looked up and realized they were on the feet of the then Executive Vice President and Provost of Brown University, archaeologist Bill Simmons. He was also the author of Spirit of the New England Tribes: Indian History and Folklore, 1620-1984, and having spent my formative years working in anthropology and archaeology museums, I was even more impressed by that. All I could muster that afternoon, intimidated by his mere presence, was, “Nice boots, Vice President Simmons.” Not my best moment, but I don’t think he held it against me.
Little did I know that just a few years later I would join the team at the RIHS and meet Bill again, this time in his capacity as a trustee of the RIHS, where he strongly supported the work we were doing in the new Goff Center for Education and Public Programs. He had joined our board in 2000 and served as our Vice President for many years. He chaired our Collections Committee and oversaw the implementation of our first major strategic plan. He was a voice of reason, with a brilliant intellect and a sparkling sense of humor. His love of his work and his community was equaled by his tremendous compassion for humankind. He was so very kind and so very smart.
He was a native son of Rhode Island, a graduate of Classical High and Brown (before heading to Harvard), and though his work took him away from here for many years, it was that very work that brought him back to Rhode Island. I am so glad to have had the past two decades to learn from him, and I miss him already.
Professor Bill Simmons (right), with fellow RIHS trustee George Goodwin, in 2015 at the Robinson Research Center
This page will be updated with more information as it becomes available.