I’ve not read the official obituaries because they are predictable. “Billionaire.” “Reclusive.” “GOP donor.” “Swift Boat Vets.” “Industrialist.” “Controversial.” “Dallas.” And there you have it: the death of a sinister figure driven by greed, the puppeteer manipulating the political process, a 21st century J.R. Ewing. (Or is it Mr. Burns?) If this is what you’ve read, it’s written by someone who didn’t know Harold Clark Simmons.
I never knew a man quite like him.
I met him in 1981 while panhandling for some political cause or another. Back then, he kept a ledger of his political donations on 5-by-7 cards. You’d make your pitch. He’d open the file and examine his giving to you. He’d then give you his answer. His answer was as crisp as each of these sentences.
To not know Harold was to be intimidated by his curt responses. On one visit, after a Shakespearean presentation by this writer, Harold looked down at his (my) file, then looked up at me and snapped in his adopted Texas slang, “No, I gave you (x dollars) in January. That’s all you’re worth to me.”
Another time, a colleague traveled 1,300 miles just to visit Harold. After cooling his heels in Harold’s vast lobby, he was ushered into the office. He walked in with a smile, hand extended for a handshake, bade Harold a cheerful hello and prepared to settle in for a talk. But Harold had other plans. As he shook my friend’s hand, he stopped him dead in his tracks. “What do you want?” Out came the request, and back came the response (in the affirmative, if I recall). Out went the guest. Total meeting length for a trip halfway across the country: two minutes.
My colleagues and I laughed for years recounting these and other “Harold” visits. We expected nothing less. He was a blast of fresh air, a man who was decisive, and if your presentation had value, virtually unrivaled in his generosity.
In 1986, I set out to form the board of directors for an organization I was endeavoring to launch, the Media Research Center. I visited Harold and made my request. Harold’s classic answer: “OK, but only if I don’t have to go to any meetings.” And he never did, not in the 27 years he served on the board, ultimately as its chairman. His participation was by phone or by proxy, and my visits were always in person. I’d bring him up to speed on things, and he’d offer comments only if he felt it absolutely necessary to do so or took special interest in the financial reports. He always thanked me for the visit.
Harold gave vast amounts of his fortune to hospitals and universities. In the days to come, we’ll learn more as his estate is settled. I suspect we will be stunned. But why the millions upon millions to political and public policy causes? What could a man worth such a vast fortune — billions — stand to gain? Nothing, really. Except the satisfaction knowing he was helping the most important thing to him after his faith and his family: his country.
Former President Ronald Reagan used to refer to the average American who did his bit for his country as the “American hero.” As average billionaires go, Harold was an American hero.
I last visited Harold a few weeks ago. Several people had warned me that recently his health had deteriorated dramatically. I saw nothing of the sort. He was as sharp and pleasant as ever. He looked good, too. I laid out my thinking for an ambitious new political adventure, one that would require tens of millions of dollars. “Could we have that conversation?” I asked. “Not yet,” he answered. He needed to tend to some business concerns. But he wanted me to know he was definitely interested. Come back in six months, he said.
This meeting will never happen. How does one react to that? Let us put it in perspective.
There is a wonderful story told about Philip II of Spain, who in 1588 had already bankrupted his country twice to build the most formidable navy in history to defeat the Protestant forces of England’s Queen Elizabeth. He awaited news at his massive imperial compound in El Escorial. And when the courier finally arrived, it was with the worst news imaginable: All is lost; the navy had been destroyed. Philip’s reaction was one for the ages. If he was crushed, history did not record it. Instead we know he immediately ordered a Te Deum Mass to be offered, giving glory to God, accepting without question His will.
I will miss Harold. He cannot be replaced. There is sadness, yes, but there is also immediate gratitude owed providence. It was willed that our nation be given Harold Simmons and that some of us would be honored to know him. This gift continues forever.