When Janet Troutman Simmons learned that her senior apartment building in St. Paul was about to be sold and most of its residents likely evicted, she sprung into action.
She organized her neighbors and wrote countless letters to government officials, legislators, state agencies and tenant action groups. This effort led the Minneapolis-based nonprofit Aeon to buy the building in Como Park, saving the affordable homes for 99 seniors and people with disabilities.
Simmons emerged triumphant, but still humble, from the battle — undeterred, even though she was 88 years old. "She was 5-feet-2, a dynamo," said her daughter, Linda Berrian of Atlanta. "She was a ball of fire."
A long-standing activist and public servant in both Massachusetts and Minnesota, Simmons died Jan. 31. She was 90.
Simmons was born June 24, 1927, in Springfield, Mass., to an educated, accomplished family with high standards. She earned an undergraduate degree from West Virginia State College and a master's degree from American International College in Massachusetts.
She became the first African-American office manager at the Springfield YWCA in the 1950s. "This happened at a time when she was going against every norm," Berrian said.
Simmons led the development of senior apartments for the Springfield Housing Authority and chaired a neighborhood council that established a mental health clinic that she went on to head for 10 years. She was also an active member of the local PTA.
She went on to manage the western Massachusetts office of U.S. Sen. Edward Brooke, a Republican who was the first African-American elected to the Senate in 1966. "She was politically independent, ferociously so," her daughter said.
During that time, Simmons was able to coax Department of Defense funds to build a camp for inner-city children at the Westover Air Force Base near Springfield.
"She made herself invaluable to people by working on different committees, and by being prepared," Berrian said. "She didn't ask for permission, she just went at it." But she was never nasty or divisive.
Simmons proudly held an uninterrupted voting record — she said it was a sacred duty as a black American.
She was a member of the Episcopal Church and active in church affairs. She enjoyed visits to Martha's Vineyard, attending formal dances, and was a die-hard fan of the New England Patriots. "She planned every meal on Sundays so that she could watch the games uninterrupted. She'd even time it so she checked the meal during timeouts and halftime," her daughter said.
She moved to Minnesota in 2006 to be close to her children. After Aeon bought her apartment building a few years later, the organization invited her to join its board. Simmons accepted — she was 89 at the time.
"She was incredibly passionate and knowledgeable," said Alan Arthur, Aeon's president and CEO. "She [had] a tremendous get-it-done leadership approach to things."
In 2017, Simmons won a national Dorothy Richardson Award from NeighborWorks America, which recognizes outstanding community leaders. At the awards ceremony in Los Angeles, she received a standing ovation. "It was such an exciting thing for her to stand before hundreds of people to talk about why she tried to make a difference in her life and work," Berrian said.
In addition to Berrian, Simmons is survived by another daughter, Wilhelmina Brown, and a son, Brian Anthony Troutman, both of St. Paul; a sister, Maurita Hinson Bledsoe of Springfield, Mass.; 11 grandchildren, and 14 great-grandchildren. She was preceded in death by brother John Hinson II; sister Shirley Hinson Graves, and daughter Betty Boyd.
Services have been held.