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Mary Schrader Simmons, known for years as “Mrs. Mary,” the matriarch of the Dorman Center, died Monday at Jewish Hospital Shelbyville, a week after a stroke and a fall had left her in serious condition.
She was 65.
Simmons leaves a legacy of commitment to children and the care for those most in need and, above all, for her lasting impact on not only those children but to Shelby Countians who came to know her as a friend.
“The words ‘she was for the children’ should be on her headstone,” said Melinda Cowherd, a former board member for the center.
Simmons, retired in 2008 after 11 years as the executive director of the center, but she never really left. She continued on the board of directors and helped with personnel matters until Dana Marlin was hired last summer.
She remained an omnipresent aide in the continuing service of needy children in Shelby County.
Only recently had her ongoing health problems kept her away on a regular basis, and those who knew her best describe easily how she will be missed on a personal and professional basis.
“Mary has been one of my best friends, my dear friend for 20 years now, and I will miss her dearly,” said Etta Murphy Coleman, the woman whom Simmons replaced as the center’s executive director. “We worked together for a long time before I resigned.
“Mary often called us ‘the odd couple’ because we were so different and so much alike, because of our commitment to the Dorman Center. She was someone who could be depended on. She had the center at heart.
“We have been through fun times and hard times. Lots of times we didn’t know how we were going to pay bills. We just hoped things worked out.”
Said Cowherd: “If she needed funds to help the children, she found it or gave from her own pocket!!”
The Dorman Center was founded in 1964 by six families, including Mary and Harold Dorman, who had a daughter with Down syndrome. They wanted a place where special-needs children could receive early intervention to get them off to a good start in school. Dorman's first location was at Shelbyville First Baptist Church.
Simmons first came to the Dorman Center as Family Service Coordinator in 1993, and she took over as executive director when Coleman, wife of the late Rev. Louis Coleman, retired in 1997.
During her tenure at the Dorman Center, Simmons increased its number of programs, earned state and national accreditation for the center and added the Dorman Crusade for Children Preschool Center near the old Northside school. The Dorman Center also worked more closely with the Cabinet for Families and Children than it had in the early years.
Simmons has also added more programs that involved the whole family, not just the children.
The Dorman Center is one of the local agencies supported by the Metro United Way campaign, has received many grants from the WHAS Crusade for Children and has been adopted by employees of Bellsouth, UPS, Martinrea and other local companies.
‘Hero’ and ‘family’
Cowherd said she became close with Simmons during their mutual work for many years for the Crusade For Children, which contributed to the center. She said as she typed a note to The Sentinel-News on Tuesday that was in tears.
“She would look at me on Crusade day, and we would both be crying,” Cowherd said. “Children touched her heart, and because of this, she touched mine. I was so honored that she called a friend.
“I admired her strength, courage and her love for underprivileged children. She was a ‘hero’ in my eyes because it was always about helping others.”
Coleman said she and Simmons had become family. “Her husband did our taxes, and he was one of the pallbearers at my husband’s funeral,” she said.
Coleman was at the hospital the morning of Feb. 8, the day after a stroke had left Simmons unable to speak. She said she visited virtually every day, taking her grandchildren with her to see Simmons just last Thursday.
“She couldn’t talk, but she knew who we were,” Coleman said. “She grabbed my hand and squeezed it. She and I knew.”
A late award
Coleman was visiting the next day, too, when Abby Cottongim stopped by to present Simmons with the 2009 Sunrise Award from Seven Counties Services.
The largest non-hospital, nonprofit behavioral healthcare organization in the area, with about 1400 employees, Seven Counties honors an individual or organization that recognizes the capacity for growth, development, and progress that can be achieved through cooperation and collaboration to further Seven Counties’ mission to build healthy communities by helping individuals and families who are affected by mental illness, developmental disabilities, addictions and abuse realize their potential.
A ceremony had been planned last month at the Dorman Center, but Simmons’ continuing health problems caused it to be continued to be postponed.
“I knew she couldn’t speak, but I thought she had to at least see it, a beautiful glass award with her name and the Dorman Center on it,” Cottongim said.
“I had Etta read the nomination form – a couple of other ladies from the center were there – and she read what was sent in on her behalf. It was pretty emotional.
“Even though she couldn’t speak or make facial expressions, tears started rolling down her face.”
Simmons was married to Deputy Sheriff Vance Simmons for 43 years, and she is the mother of Amanda Simmons, the drama teacher at Shelby County High School, and Ron. She has two grandchildren, Emily and Hunter.
She also served a year on the Shelbyville City Council.
Simmons estimated at her retirement that she had helped about 3,000 children during her tenure, and she battled health issues during the last year before she retired and said she planned to spend her retirement sitting on her front porch "watching the traffic."
But she remained around the center, continuing to help.
“She was just a beautiful person,” Coleman said. “She was so good for the Dorman Center because she fit right in with its mission. It was her heart.”
Former Sentinel-News Editor Walt Reichert contributed to this report.