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Simmons brings classics to life for Monmouth students

Barry McNamara
MONMOUTH, Ill. – After studying French for four years in high school, Bob Simmons was proficient enough to test out of two of the three semesters of the foreign language requirement in college.

But when it came time to choose the course to take for his lone required semester of foreign language, Simmons said au revoir to French and the rest is history – or, in Simmons’s case, ancient history.

Simmons chose to study Latin, which began a journey that reached a career milestone in May, when he was promoted to associate professor of classics after completing his fourth year at Monmouth College.

“I had a great Latin teacher as an undergrad, and I only had the opportunity to take that great professor because I didn’t test out of French,” said Simmons.

But Simmons also noticed that although Latin is a “dead language,” it seemed very much alive in the world.

“I kept seeing reflections of contemporary ideas and events in the Latin and classical literature I was studying,” he said.

That is certainly the case with Simmons’s specialty within the discipline – demagogues in fifth-century Athens. The demagogues used “friendship building” to bond with common people whose causes they championed, much like aspiring politicians use handshaking or kissing babies in the modern world.

“My main research focus is the way these demagogues rose to power and the anxiety about them reflected in the literature of the time,” he said. “The ways in which people reacted to demagogues can tell us a lot about current times and the way we live.”

A family of teachers

It’s natural that Simmons chose teaching as his profession. For a time, he followed his parents’ career and was a high school English teacher, but the pull of classics was too strong.

“Teaching was a way to give something back to the world,” said Simmons, who is married to educational studies professor Michelle Holschuh Simmons. “The only question was, ‘Would it be teaching English or classics?’”

Early on, the answer was the former, as both he and Michelle taught high school English in Omaha, Neb.

“But after three years, I went back to the thing that had moved me so much as an undergrad,” said Simmons. “Classics provides an opportunity to work with a range of subjects that I find interesting – language, culture, history, sports. ... I’ve been active in athletics most of my life, and in my ‘Sports in Greece and Rome’ class, my interest in athletics overlaps with my academic area.”

Simmons, who earned an undergraduate degree from St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., taught classics courses while working toward a doctorate at the University of Iowa. He then took a visiting classics position at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, where he taught for eight years.

At Greensboro, he started an annual Classics Day, bringing together the aforementioned range of subjects, including athletics, through historical demonstrations.

“We started small, with just seven events, but by the fourth year we were up to 25 events and over 1,000 people attended,” said Simmons. “We made the statewide cable news.”

Simmons brought Classics Day to Monmouth, and it has experienced similar growth. He expects the next event, set for Sept. 29, to attract more than 200 high school teachers and students. The day could attract up to 500 overall attendees.

“It’s a big commitment, and many schools would not be able to support it the way Monmouth does,” said Simmons. “The willingness for people to play a role in the day is just phenomenal. As much work as I’ve put into it, I’ve received that much support from the campus community.”

Three goals of teaching

Classics Day fulfills what Simmons calls his three basic goals of teaching – “to inspire, enlighten and energize.” He said working with classics students makes those goals easier to accomplish.

“Classics students tend to be curious, open-minded, thoughtful, diligent and not bound by convention,” said Simmons. “They’re often community-inclined. They seem to appreciate what I appreciate about classics, which is a way of seeing the world that many people overlook.”

Added to that are qualities he’s noticed about Monmouth students.

“Monmouth students tend to be eager and unpresumptuous, excited about opportunities presented to them and willing to try new things – they’re not as self-conscious as students at bigger schools sometimes are,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed tapping into that close-knit, community nature of the College.”

That carries over to the Simmons’s four children – ages 13, 11 and 9-year-old twins – who have attended “dozens and dozens” of campus events.

“The College has been a tremendous nurturing environment and has provided a rich growing-up experience for them,” he said. “They get opportunities not available to people living in bigger places – places that aren’t as human-centric as Monmouth is.”