When Paul Simmons was 22, he built a house in Acushnet, just down the road from his hometown of New Bedford, where his father had a concrete form business. He built it from the ground up – the foundation and everything else too. He and his first wife raised two sons there.
For the last 30 years (since he was 32), Paul has battled multiple sclerosis. He was diagnosed a few days after the morning he woke up, got out of bed, and crumpled to the floor. He had no feeling from the waist down. When the doctors finally figured out what was wrong, one of them, a neurologist, told Paul he would never walk again.
“Give me that goddam wheelchair,” Paul replied. He pulled himself into it, wheeled to the door, and left the room, only looking back to say to the doctor, “I don’t ever want to see your face again.”
Three weeks later, Paul shoved the wheelchair against the wall and asked his wife for a walker. He got up. He learned to walk. A few months later, he went skiing! Paul has always loved to ski. It was the favored family activity when his kids were growing up, but in recent years, his degenerative MS has made each run more difficult.
Last year, he tackled Wildcat Mountain with his grandkids. From the summit, he looked across the valley to Tuckerman’s Ravine at Mt. Washington, remembering the times he had hiked and skied the headwall, the good lines, the beautiful days. The day before, skiing with the kids, Paul had fallen and couldn’t get up. He did, somehow. Now, a day later, he could feel that this run was going to be trouble. Maybe his last one.
He told the kids to go on ahead; he would catch up. It took him an hour and a half to struggle down the mountain, in part because it was such a monumental effort and in part because he kept stopping, looking across the valley, savoring his last run.
Paul takes after his Dad. His company, L.P. Simmons (it used to stand for “Lonely and Poor” after his second divorce, now it’s “Level and Plumb” deep into his third marriage), has built all our concrete foundations for the past few decades. The rough-and-tumble, boisterous nature of Paul and his cohort overlays consummate professionalism, tremendous skill, and a remarkable breadth of experience.
Paul is very good at what he does.
He has skied hundreds of days and built hundreds of foundations with no feeling in his knees. These days, he can’t manage the hard physical work; his son, Tim, manages the on-site aspect of his business. Tim says his Dad is his number one priority (don’t tell his partner Aja). He says Paul’s a genius. “He looks at a set of plans and immediately sees everything. And he can do anything. But he should have been a critic – that’s his real calling. Food, movies, me – he’ll tell you what he thinks about all of ‘em.” Tim has been through some rough times, too, and beat the odds. He feels that his father’s love was a big part of what carried him through the rapids.
Paul’s physical limitations don’t stop him. Remember that house he built 40 years ago? Since then, he has built half a dozen more in his spare time. Today he lives at the end of a dirt road in Vineyard Haven with his wife Ann. Recently, he took me for a tour. The house is chockablok full of hand-crafted treasures – ingenious woodwork (much of it made with reclaimed lumber from our yard, from jobsites, and driftwood). There are curvy polished concrete counters and fine tile work. There’s even a recent addition to the house with a beautiful iron and wood stair railing. He still does everything himself (mostly).
He has a tiny shop in the basement with rudimentary tools. He carefully figures out everything he needs, goes downstairs, cuts the pieces, and hauls them up. Once they’ve arrived upstairs, they don’t go back down for corrections. It’s too hard to negotiate the stairs. He measures twice and cuts once.
Whenever Paul comes to our office (these days assisted by a cane) to drop off a quote or pick up a check, he lights the place up. He’s as friendly as he is loud, and he brings a bit of joy into the day, no matter how he’s feeling. As our Director of Finance, Siobhán, describes it, “Everyone starts smiling. He’s larger than life.”
We’re lucky to work with him, to benefit from his vast experience, to enjoy his friendship, and to endure his good-natured insults and admonishments. The positive spirit and defiant optimism that pulled him up out of that wheelchair 30 years ago continue to define him. He’s a lesson to us all.