There are a few men and women in the Mahoning Valley who have been pioneers in movements that changed the face of America and yet labored in their home vineyards as well, having a profound and personal effect on thousands of people.
That exclusive fraternity is now diminished by one with the death Monday of the Rev. Lonnie A. Simon at the age of 87.
Next Sunday will mark 50 years since the Rev. Mr. Simon preached his first sermon as pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church. It was Nov. 11, 1962. He had already been a minister for seven years and he went on to serve his New Bethel congregation for 33 years.
And even after he retired, he worked as an interim minister at other congregations when called upon.
That record alone would have defined an extraordinary life, a life of which anyone reading this could have been proud.
But the life story of Lonnie A. Simon is much deeper than that. It was one of activism, service and art.
Early civil rights worker
He walked among the early giants of the civil rights movement. He was in Washington, D.C., in 1963 when Dr. Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech and marched with King in Montgomery, Ala., in 1965.
And each time he went away, he returned to Youngstown with a new vigor and new dedication toward battling discrimination here.
He was named to Mayor Anthony B. Flask’s Human Relations Commission in 1967, supported school levy campaigns, and worked for the United Negro College Fund, the Urban League, the NAACP and the Buckeye Elks.
He worked from outside the system, and from within, winning election to the Youngstown Board of Education.
His activism and his zeal did not make him universally popular. While he was on the Board of Education he was arrested for questioning police handling of a disturbance at a football game. He was eventually acquitted.
His car was heavily damaged by a bomb while it sat in the driveway of his Jackson Street home in October 1972. But he was not intimidated. For most of the next 40 years, until his health began to fail, he remained single-minded and outspoken in the causes of justice and equality. He was a local pioneer in ecumenicalism and in the support of women in the clergy.
He traveled well and did good
During his career, he toured Israel and the Holy Land. He traveled to Ghana, West Africa, and Guyana, South America, among other places — preaching, taking aid and bringing back a new understanding of how people in other lands coped with poverty and discrimination. While his churches were not among the richest in the area, they managed to raise money for missionary work.
And while Rev. Simon had long been an accomplished singer, he turned in later years to other artistic pursuits as well, including his poetry, which was published in two volumes.
His services on civic and religious boards, locally and nationally, are too numerous to list. But one other accomplishment must be recognized. He was a family man — a devoted husband and the father of four children, including a son, Kenneth, who succeeded him as pastor of New Bethel.
Most of us are fortunate to have one passion in life, one thing we’re good at and one accomplishment of which we can be truly proud.
The Rev. Lonnie A. Simon lived a life of varied and extraordinary accomplishments. He touched the lives of people on at least four continents in numbers that cannot be tallied here on Earth.