Member of the Month: Joe Simmons

 
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By Jason Bove.

It’s a normal weekday at the gym. You look over toward the fish tank to see what’s going on “under the sea.” Instead, what draws your attention is the older gentleman, pen in hand, sipping his Java Monster. Stationed at his usual spot, Joe diligently writes and draws page after page of a graphic novel that will be unveiled for the masses…hopefully soon. A fighter, philosopher, father, and more, this Member of the Month is sure to tell you stories of a different time. Take a moment, share a smile, and, if he’ll let you, get to know a bit more about Joe.

Editors note: This interview was conducted in-person and has been edited for length and clarity. Also, Joe only allowed one picture to be taken of him; more incentive to meet the real deal!

At 80 years young, and whether you are willing to admit it or not, you clock in as the earliest born member of Pipeworks. Wow! What is your secret to retaining youth?

I don’t know if I have a secret. I think it’s probably a lot to do with the genes. But, I’ve been a vegetarian since I was 18, and I love to work out. I tend to be optimistic about life in general. Not that I haven’t had moments of sheer terror!

I have personally had the pleasure of watching you destroy the punching bags with the intensity of a 20-year-old. Where did your love of boxing come from?

My father. One of the success stories of American history. Left home at 15, rode the rails, Depression Era guy. Captain in the American Army, a real tough guy! He raised me on gloves, guns, guts, and God. I owe my father for the warrior code. My mother read me all the lives of the saints, and I have a personal patron saint. But nobody has her…only me, Joan of Arc. I grew up with a speed bag. We had a boxing program at McClatchy High School, here in Sacramento, and I was in that program. We put on “brawls.”

I won all my fights, all but the last one. The last fight I had.

I was tall, so I could keep guys at the end of my jab. I won all my fights, all but the last one. The last fight I had. I had fought him twice before, and kept on the end of my jab. Our coach Erman told him, “Get inside him, don’t let him back you off. Take the jab, he’s not gonna hurt you. Get inside, and get your head against his chest…just go!” And he did. I had never had a brawl before. I wasn’t able to tie him up, and so I started swinging back, and we went at it. I didn’t tie him up or anything. I just thought, “You wanna brawl, let’s go!”

They called it a draw, so I ended up with a draw. Coach Erman quit a couple of years later, and the boxing program ended because they had a death. We were a feeder to Sac State, which also had a boxing program. A kid got killed out there. It’s so rare, but when it happens, everyone wants to shut the program down. There’s kids killed in football, there’s extreme sports guys who break their necks and get killed. It’s just one of those tragedies that come into boxing. When I went to college, they had no boxing program, but I discovered some other boxers, so we put on “fight club” (before the movie). We tried to get a referee to watch. I got a reputation.

…we put on “fight club” (before the movie).

Later I got into competitive Judo at the Sacramento Judo Club…just brutal. I learned a lot about a real fighting code. Thanks, Ben Nighthorse. Honor first. Sport? Some say, “Second place is the first loser…big sign of decay.”

As a professor of philosophy for many years, how do you describe your style of teaching, and from where do the roots of your lessons originate?

I taught for a long time. I started in 1991 and stopped a couple years ago. I’m really old school I guess. Of course, I got students who were new, so I thought they needed a real good grounding in the basics: This is Plato, this is Aristotle, this is Heidegger, this is Spinoza, this is Descartes. I ended up founding the Honors Program, and I also put in the World Religions course. I had a Fulbright Scholarship to India, which gave me a leg up. I was Department Chair about five times, and faculty Vice President a few times. I never thought grades should be punitive, but I got a lot of good students. They were self-selected for a philosophy course. These kids could have been accepted, for the most part, anywhere, but they probably didn’t have the money. Lots came from Latino or African-American communities. They were really, really bright, but maybe the first one in their family to go to college, so I loved that cutting edge!

I ended up founding the Honors Program, and I also put in the World Religions course. I had a Fulbright Scholarship to India, which gave me a leg up.

The course I am proudest of was my Philosophy of Literature. I built the curriculum. It was Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and fantasy literature. It was my favorite, but it was the toughest class to teach. You know, there’s nothing like a classroom, just me…and all of them!

Would you say that you were an easy teacher? Why or why not?

I’m probably somewhere in between. I wanted to encourage them. I never really had to do it very much, but if somebody just didn’t seem like they were doing very well at all, I would just talk to them. I’d say, “Hey, if we need to get together, I’ll help you.” My office hours tended to be crowded. They wanted to come and talk to me. I wouldn’t say I was easy, but I wasn’t draconian. I’ve seen some teachers who pride themselves on how many they flunk or something. I wanted to divide the classroom into three parts:

  • Letting them talk.
  • Discussing a little together as a group.
  • The “chat room.” Let’s go outside, sit around in a circle, and get out of this place. Socrates never talked with chairs in a building!

I always had them evaluate me at the end of the semester. What did you like best, if anything, what did you like least, if anything? Give me a grade. I got three sweeps, all A’s, but obviously not every time. Usually 95% A’s. What hurt my feelings was that I got three C’s in ten years.

Give me an F. Whatever I am, I am not mediocre!

One C always bothered me. She said, “I love your course. I loved everything you did, but you didn’t allow discussion. I can’t give you an A or a B for that.” I think she came in a day late. I told them, “Let me develop this. We’ve got 20-30 minutes to discuss this, then let’s go for it.” And then she would walk out at the end. If I would say, “Okay, chat room coming up at the end. Grab your coffee, let’s meet,” she thought they all went to computers or something. That’s the only thing. No discussions? Way more than half my class was discussion. Give me an F. Whatever I am, I am not mediocre!

You have been a first-hand witness to many environmental, political, economic, and societal changes. What, if any, have had the most impact on your view of the world?

Weight training became a big part of my life. It’s mystical. You overcome gravity. You reverse the downward pull. I won the California State Powerlifting Championships…missed a top lift and had a weak total. But I won first place. I have been through three very, very radical cultural revolutions. I am one of the few people left on Earth who can actually get a classic, eloquent sentence out, without the misuse of the word “like” or the word “y’know.” I don’t start with “so,” or call someone “dude.” Like, y’know, I didn’t go there!

Weight training became a big part of my life. It’s mystical. You overcome gravity.

All kingdoms fall. I was particularly interested in the fall of the Byzantine Empire, which was Rome for a thousand years after the fall of Rome. Ups and downs, and ups and downs, but eventually they fall. In 1204, the Western Normans took them over. In 1453, the Ottoman Turks took them over. No matter how long you go, you’re gonna go down…and the signs are all the same. And I saw them, because I was there, in 1204 and 1453. And, I see the signs today. History repeats itself, so I am a student of philosophy of history. I love Hegel, I love Toynbee, I love Spengler, I love Dawson, so it makes me transcendent to all my cultures.

How might Pythagoras be able to easily find his way in modern society?

Pythagoras was the most important Western philosopher in history because of his position. He’s a little left out. People think he just did mathematics. He did way more “M’s” than that: He did math, he did music, he did mysticism, magic, and martial arts. Without him, Western philosophy would not have had the Socrates, Plato, Aristotle trilogy. Three of the best each teaching the other. But, what happens is, even in philosophy classes I’m afraid, that they begin to leave this out. They’ll put in the math, but they won’t put in the mysticism. They won’t talk about magic; maybe the most important category for all of philosophy, anywhere. They let that go by the boards. You’ll study Plato’s Republic. You’ll get his politics, but you won’t get his theory of reincarnation, the myth of ER. I quote: “The whole history of Western philosophy is a footnote to Plato.”

Do you feel that the internet and cellular technology have changed us as a whole?

Well, I was pulled, kicking and screaming, into this decade. The Roman Legions said, “Fortune favors the bold.” I try. Cellphones? They really, really are vital to the enrichment of my life. I think we have to ask ourselves what we mean if we say, “This improves our lives.”

“The hardest thing in the world is to find a fact.”

Let me give you my favorite example out of my ethics class. I don’t remember the exact stats for the year I taught my last class, but it’s something like 68,000 people are killed every year with cars, two million are injured. Those are casualties, every year, that have long gone beyond any war we ever fought. So, do you want to do away with cars? In other words, what does “improvement” mean? How about having a moral code to live by, to stand up for justice and honor, and not let these things get politicized? No political solutions will ultimately work…if the “psyche,” the “Geist” isn’t strong.

With the advent of these technological advancements, what, if any, would be our biggest disconnect from “reality”?

I had a very wise guy I was talking to five years ago saying, “The hardest thing in the world is to find a fact.” Whatever you see on the media, whatever they report, they can never get it right. And that doesn’t just mean the political station you don’t like. I mean every single one of them have trouble getting a fact out. He told me, “If you’re building a bridge, and the reporter gives a report, he’ll get something wrong in that report.” But we live in a society in which the important thing is to be as assertive as possible; as shrill as possible, and that’s going to lead us to big trouble. Read history.

Recently, you have spent many hours at the gym ingesting caffeine and working on what looks like the framework of a hand-drawn graphic novel. Is it too early to ask what this endeavor is that captures your current life?

A little early, but not too early. I want to do a graphic novel, and it will be sort of like anime, or manga. I’m no great artist, but I think the theme will be interesting enough. I’ll leave it there.

Can you please share a memorable childhood experience that still makes you smile?

At my age, childhood is anything under 30! I have a lot. I think the one I’m gonna pick is…

I was 13 or 14, just a kid. There was a gang at our school. I won’t use real names of people in the gang, but they were a self-identified gang of “fonzies.” I was walking down the hall, and—I don’t know why, maybe I was tall and looked stupid or something—but they knocked the books out of my hand. Down they went, all over the floor. They said, “Oh man, too bad.” He had a little back-up there, so I had to get up my books and walked on.

My daddy raised me to know there are times you had to stand up. You may get beat up. He said, “Do you want that to happen every day, Joey?” No. He said, “Make them pay for it if he does it again.” He does it again, and down he went.

My dad taught me not only to box, but to wrestle. He was MMA before MMA! He said, “Ed ‘Strangler’ Lewis, a famous wrestler, challenged Joe Lewis for $100,000, and Joe Lewis wouldn’t do it!” That’s because grapplers tend to beat strikers on a consistent basis. I won that one! And, I went home and said, “They’re gonna get me.”

An incident I’m most proud of? A guy with an ice pick was trying to kill a girl. I stepped in, got the ice pick away.

What’s making me smile? I decided to show up to school the next day. Are they gonna wait after school, before school to get me? But they didn’t for some reason. Maybe six months later, the toughest guy in their gang and I got into it. I was boxing all the time, speed bag all the time, and I bloodied him up pretty good. I backed him up against the fence. He was a real tough guy, a bruiser. He looked older than me, had a little beard, dated the teacher (ha, ha, ha). I went all in. Better to lose than take that every day!

It was like nothing ever happened. For the next two years, we would walk down the halls and see each other. He’d make eye contact kinda hard, and I’d just waltz on by. Hey, I want to quit winners, no rematches. But, if he wanted to have a rematch, then let’s go! The one thing I wasn’t going to let myself experience was just being a patsy. I’d rather get beat up.

I’m sure people reading this wonder what kind of barbarian home I was raised in, but the advice from my father was good! I owe him so much. He was my first hero. He was a tough guy. He started riding the rails at 15, picking fruit. No handouts. Three big degrees after his name. He had a way of putting it: “Better to lose,” he said. “If you lose that fight, challenge him again…and again. Challenge him straight up. He’s going to get tired, and you’ll start landing some. He’ll pick on an easier guy!” My father.

An incident I’m most proud of? A guy with an ice pick was trying to kill a girl. I stepped in, got the ice pick away. I didn’t know he had the ice pick…until he turned around!! As my dad said, “By the time the cops show up, the damage is done.”