This Million Texan Project ---- and, ultimately, this website ----- is an homage to the my 7th-grade Texas history teacher and the best teacher I ever had, Elvis "Boots" Simmons or, as I knew him, Mr. Simmons. Mr. Simmons died in 2010 at the age of 91, and this project is dedicated to him.
When I first entered his classroom at Bonham Jr. High School in Temple, Texas I couldn't believe that this man, Mr. Simmons, was my teacher. First of all, he was a male, the first male teacher I had ever had. And not only was he male but he was a giant bear of a man with a nose that looked like it had been broken several times. My own father was 6'5" tall and my mom 5'11', so I was used to being around lengthy people, but Mr. Simmons appeared to occlude the lights in the classroom. He must have weighed 270 pounds and he looked like he could still play for the Texas Aggies, the team for which he had played his college football, or for the Chicago Cardinals, the NFL team that subsequently drafted him. Just his shadow was heavy, and in my fertile, seventh-grade imagination, he didn't live so much as dwell in a lair from which he observed the triflings of his students with his all-knowing, all-seeing eye. He was in total control of the class from the git go because nobody dared tempt fate. Nobody was brave enough to rouse the beast that we all JUST KNEW would be released if so much as a note was passed or a spitball unleashed. He was soft-spoken and gentle, mind you. But he could afford to be.
Mr. Simmons was also a great teacher. He had a method that I have never seen duplicated. At the beginning of the year he put every student's name on a separate index cards. He would assign Texas history readings for homework. At the beginning of each class he would shuffle those index cards like a Vegas card dealer. The lesson would begin. Mr. Simmons would be discussing some aspect of Texas history until he would come to a part that he regarded as important, something that any student who had done the reading would know but that was impossible to fake had the student NOT done the assignment and he would say something like, "and the name of the river that David Crockett crossed when entering Texas was ....." , draw the top index card off the pile, and ask the poor victim what the name of that river was. And if in their whimsy and cruelty the index card Gods had chosen you, you either knew the name of the river or you did not. If you got the answer right, he would smile, put a little check mark on the card, and go on. If you did not know the answer, he would frown, cut his thumb with a pen knife, and drop a little drop of blood onto the card, disappointed in you.
Okay, so I made that last part up. In actuality we never knew what mark he made to signify that you had failed or how those marks figured into the final grade. There were rumors of course but nobody really knew and that is what made it so terrifying. You could see the unprepared kids sweating as he was shuffling those cards.
One would think that the card shuffling would render it entirely a game of chance, but I swear there were kids who were not called on the entire year, and others, like me, who were called on three times in the first week. I lived the whole school year in fear of being embarrassed. But even more importantly I didn't want to let this man, this giant man, down. And you could see kids, the unprepared kids, sweating as the cards were being shuffled. But I was not one of them, no sirree bob. I did my readings. And somewhere along the way I picked up a love of Texas history that remains with me to this day. So I thank my lucky stars that he was my teacher.
A little bit more about Mr. Simmons: he was born in 1919 and attended A&M, where he was an All-American and where he played a vital roll on the 1939 Aggie national championship team in football. He was severely wounded fighting in World War II, something he did never mentioned in class. He was drafted by the NFL in the 1943 draft. Later, in the early/mid 1970s, his son Bob played for the Texas Longhorns, where he also was an All-American offensive tackle. One day, Bob came to visit his dad while we were having class and, amazingly, Bob seemed even larger than his dad. We were in awe.
Mr. Simmons passed away in 2010. I hope that he knew how many kids he positively impacted over the years, how many kids grew up with a love of Texas history because of him.
And so, in the spirit of Elvis "Boots" Simmons, I offer this tribute to Texas history teachers and to ALL teachers. Without y'all, this page would probably have about 17 readers. Lift your glasses and toast yourselves!.
Beauty is only skin deep but Texas is to the bone.