Sunny Simms: Sociologist, leader, custodian, mentor, friend
Sunny Simms: Sociologist, leader, custodian, mentor, friend
By Milo Frazier,photos by Brad Bakke
In the wispy mists of early morning, a large man walks Chemeketa’s Salem campus with a golden-toothed smile.
With blue gloves, slick curly black hair, and inviting eyes, Robert “Sunny” Simms doesn’t just help keep the campus orderly in his role as a custodian. He also takes the time to offer students encouragement and insights into how their behavior can change the world.
“You only get out of life what you put in,” Sunny says as he strains to pull a clear plastic bag over a large garbage can outside the Convenience Store in Bldg. 2.
Sunny gained his nickname at an early age. He says it was bestowed on him by his mother, a result of his eternal positive attitude even through bouts of sickness.
Sunny say, “I grew up with pneumonia, polio, measles. I was always sick, but I never gave up; I was never sad.”
Sunny pauses before speaking about his mother: “My mom called me Sunshine cuz’ I always had a smile for someone. … I’ve always been Sunny.”
Sunny begins his workday at 7:30 sharp.
He takes pride in his work ethic and daily routine, indicating that he never misses work.
“I just don’t see myself ever stopping. If you stop moving, you might as well be dead,” he says as he leaves his cart to pick up a discarded scrap of plastic in the courtyard while making the rounds on a recent winter morning.
With a bachelor’s degree in sociology from UCLA in 1984, Sunny says that he understands how people think.
At 71, Sunny says he no longer has the desire to work in his field of study.
“I just couldn’t take seeing these kids giving up on life every day,” he says, though he still manages to use his knowledge to effect change.
It’s not just students who notice, either.
Shane Saggs, 23, a member of the custodial crew, says, “Sunny really has become my best friend. He has taught me to discipline myself with others.”
“Especially with the ladies – right, Shane?” Sunny chimes in, kidding his friend.
Shane belts out a crooked laugh. He looks down at Sunny’s feet and says, “Yeah, it’s easier to just get along and not get upset.”
Sunny says, “Don’t let your emotions rule you. … It’s hard for people to remember you for all the good you do, but it’s easy to remember anything you do wrong.”
When Sunny began working with the custodial crew, his energy and drive took some of his younger cohorts by surprise.
“I didn’t believe that this old man would be around for long,” Saggs says, explaining that in the five years he’s been at the college, he’s seen a number of other custodians come and go.
But Sunny, Saggs says, is different.
“He doesn’t get upset, he doesn’t complain, he doesn’t get frustrated. He just always has a positive attitude and works hard,” he says.
For some insight into Sunny’s background, a quick check of his resume reveals that he spent 26 years with Union Local 296 in Portland. During that time, he worked on set design for Warner Brothers on the film Maverick.
“I was the one who helped set up all the nice stuff on the steamboat,” Sunny says as he thinks of the stained glass lamps, leather chairs, and heavy poker tables. “It was beautiful working in the Columbia Gorge. Meeting James Garner, Clint Black, and Mel Gibson was something.”
Consider: In 1992, Sunny was working on the Golden Pioneer atop the state Capitol Building.
It was as scary as it sounds. While Sunny was breaking up concrete encasing the steel girders, using a hammer drill the size of a small child, the ledge he was standing on broke loose and fell 14 feet.
“I broke my rotator cuff into 17 pieces and messed up the discs in my lower back,” he says.
He describes the subsequent rehabilitation as awful.
Sunny says that he didn’t like the medication’s side effects and, against doctors’ orders, stopped taking the pain killers and fought his way through the ordeal.
“The hard things in life make you stronger,” he says, thinking back on the experience as he walks between Bldgs. 19 and 20
It’s all part of an interesting life for Sunny.
Sunny served six years in the Army during the height of the Vietnam conflict.
“The military taught me how to discipline myself,” he says. “I was point man. The point man needs to see the things other might miss.”
Sunny pauses and smiles as he sees another person; he offers a good morning.
“Yeah, I was trained in maps, judo, every weapon out there – even bows,” he says. “Learning how to read the maps was important. There were times we knew they were just on the other side of the brush, but we had to find a way to move anyway.”
Today, Sunny encourages students to find the structure, skills, and support he gained in the military. He says that his time in the military helped him find the structure he needed to keep his family strong.
“Even though we don’t always get along, my family is the first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning,” Sunny says as he lightly shrugs and smiles.
Sunny has been married for 32 years to his wife, Wanda Simms. They have none children – four boys and five girls – and 33 grandchildren.
Sunny treats many students like family, offering advice and guidance as he walks the grounds and halls of Chemeketa each day.
Arro Manriquez, a mechanical engineering transfer student, says that he sees Sunny’s influence on campus regularly.
Manriquez says Sunny’s best quality is that he “speaks from his heart and is a good listener.”
“Sunny is my life advice guy,” he says, thinking back to a recent car accident. “Sunny helped me find a good car and told me how to deal with the insurance company”.
Manriquez says that he sees Sunny at least three days a week while walking from his car to campus. Every time, he says, “he literally brightens my day”.
On this day, Sunny shouts out another friendly “Good Morn’” to a student he sees passing through the covered area outside of The Book Store.
As he pulls another plastic trash liner, he considers the day that lies ahead and with a big smile says, “Might just breeze through this today.”