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Obituary: Neighbors loved Muriel Simmons, dealers didn't

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT
  • Star Tribune
  • January 24, 2013 - 11:05 PM

Bob Miller recalls sitting one evening on the wide veranda that encircled the spacious Victorian house that Muriel Simmons owned on Portland Avenue when the homeowner spotted a gaggle of young drug dealers nearby.

"She was out of that chair like a shot, and she read them the riot act," said the former director of neighborhood programs in Minneapolis.

That's the sort of street bravery neighbors remember about Simmons, who died Jan. 15 at 73.

The grand dame of the Phillips West neighborhood in Minneapolis spent her time there driving away dealers and prostitutes, and bringing together neighbors.

For example, there's the holiday gathering that began in her house one year when she decided that neighbors who had been targeting street crime needed some purely social time. It started with several dozen friends in her house.

"By the next year it had tripled, and the next it had tripled more," said her son Bryan, who lived with Simmons. The midwinter social eventually moved to a nearby church, where it drew several hundred.

The National Night Out parties she organized outdrew even that. Simmons would be the impresario, cadging donations from the area's corporate neighbors such as Honeywell and Abbott Northwestern Hospital and running a 24-flavor snow cone machine.

Simmons grew up in Baltimore, where she graduated from Dunbar High School and was a drum major, and also participated in the science club and ran track. She worked as a beautician in the same salon as her mother and grandfather. She then married Burl D. Simmons, moving around during his naval career.

After his death, she supported the family for a time as an over-the-road trucker, according to her son. Never in robust health, she moved to Minneapolis to be close to her daughter and to medical care, he said.

She and Bryan bought their house in 1998. They discovered that the previous owner hadn't told the recovering alcoholics occupying its small rooms that the house had been divided into of the sale, her son said. She told them they could stay until they found other places.

Simmons said his mother was motivated to clean up the "hot zone" outside because drug dealers were doing business from the same corner where her grandchildren waited for their school bus.

"You knew she was very serious, and you took her seriously," said Kris Arneson, now a deputy police chief. "You wanted to help her, and if she didn't get it from you she would get it from somewhere."

Simmons' activities soon meshed with the desire by area corporate and nonprofit leaders to clean up their doorsteps, prompting several housing replacement or renovation initiatives, but her house was spared. She worked closely with an emerging young activist.

"She was really quite a mentor to me," said Robert Lilligren, now a City Council member. Her house was a stopping place for pols seeking votes in the area.

In addition to son Bryan, Simmons is survived by three other sons, John, of Virginia; Benard and Burl, of Minneapolis; a daughter, Judy, of Minneapolis, and 33 grandchildren or great-grandchildren. Services have been held.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438 Twitter: @brandtstrib

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