Zoo honors 'Papa Bear'
DULUTH , Minn. -- People used to ask for Dick Simmons, though they usually didn't know his name. "I would have people call and say, 'Is there any way that gentleman who plays catch with the bears would be there?'" said Susan Garrett, director of ...
DULUTH , Minn. -- People used to ask for Dick Simmons, though they usually didn't know his name.
"I would have people call and say, 'Is there any way that gentleman who plays catch with the bears would be there?'" said Susan Garrett, director of administrative services for the Lake Superior Zoo.
Simmons, better known at the zoo as Papa Bear, was the white-haired, big-featured man who spent much of his retirement at the zoo, tossing a plastic ball back and forth with polar bears Bubba and Berlin.
Simmons wasn't an employee and wasn't even a trained docent, Garrett said, but he was such a popular figure that people from out of town planning return visits to the zoo would ask if he could be there.
"He would make sure he was there," Garrett said.
But he was usually there anyway. "He would leave about 9 in the morning and come home when it closed," said his widow, Vivian Simmons, 82.
Simmons died on July 12, 2008, surviving Bubba by less than a year. The zoo will pay tribute to his many years of devotion to the bears by unveiling a memorial plaque in his honor on Saturday.
Vivian Simmons was married to Dick for 60 years and still lives with her son and his family in the West Duluth home where she and Dick lived for 58 years. She said their twin daughters led the way with zoo involvement, serving as docents and encouraging their parents to get involved.
"We would help with whatever they needed," she said. "He started playing with the bears."
Volunteering was a way of life for Dick and Vivian. Earlier in life, he had served as Scoutmaster for his son's Boy Scout troop. Back then, Vivien said, his nickname was Grumpy Bear. Kathy Bergen, Parks and Recreation manager for Duluth, remembers the couple volunteering for the Senior Dining Program and Northland Senior Games, two programs she managed in 1983. That was the year Dick retired as a truck driver for local lumber companies.
He received a presidential letter honoring him for 4,000 hours of volunteer time.
At the zoo, Dick Simmons made and handed out "I played ball with the polar bears" stickers. He also used worn-out plastic balls to make key chains, complete with polar bear teeth marks.
"He did that on his own dime," Garrett said. "He would give them to the kids."
Dick Simmons had two knee replacements and suffered from prostate cancer. During the last couple of years of his life he was cared for at St. Eligius Health Center, across Grand Avenue from the zoo. Even when he was in a wheelchair, he often would be brought to the zoo, Garrett said. And though he no longer could play catch with the bears, he would call to them from the deck overlooking their den.
"Bubba bear!" Garrett imitated in a gravelly voice.
The bears recognized Simmons, Bergen said. "He would just call out for them, and they would perk up and look for him," she said.
"His interaction with the bears really added excitement for the bears and the visitors," Bergen said. "It's sorely missed."
John Lundy is a reporter at the Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.