Friday, May 25, 2018
One of America's Great Newspapers ~ Toledo, Ohio

Jack Lessenberry

Detroit activist may never run out of causes

DETROIT - Rudy Simons has a lot in common with other men with sons in kindergarten in these difficult days. He is deeply worried about Eli's future, especially with the horrors of the present war against terrorism.

Like a lot of other young men launching their careers, he works full-time in commercial real estate, is passionate about music, and loves to travel. He's a bit shy, and while he does have political opinions, he doesn't force them on you.

However, he is a little different.

For one thing, though he is trim, athletic, and has a full head of hair, Mr. Simons will be 73 in December, which may get him noticed at PTA meetings. For another, his cultural tastes aren't exactly Eminem and Madonna. Though he's a lifelong Detroiter, he and partner Mort Zieve are also one of the top song-writing teams off-Broadway. They've co-authored the score for four different shows, including the musical, How Many Minutes to Midnight, and have written hundreds of songs.

“I guess some people like them,” he says, with typical modesty, from behind metal-rimmed glasses and an enviable shock of curly hair.

When he travels, it isn't exactly to the Poconos. While he doesn't find it as easy to get away as he did before Eli was born, a couple years ago he went to Iraq, taking medical supplies there with his group, Metro Detroit Against Sanctions, to show his opposition to a U.S. policy that he and many others believe has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children, without threatening Saddam Hussein's hold on power. He's made many trips to places like Nicaragua, China, and Palestine, bearing witness in eras when the FBI thought it wasn't politically correct to do so.

And then there is his arrest record. True, more than a few young fathers have had brushes with the law. Rudy's, however, haven't been for driving under the influence, but for protesting the government's paramilitary training operation, the School of the Americas, in Fort Benning, Ga. Twice. Oh, and also for blocking a garage entrance as part of a protest during the Detroit newspaper strike around the time Eli was born.

That's not the sort of thing most men in, well, high middle age do. Mr. Simons, incidentally, doesn't come from a family of radicals or labor activists. His father was the famous composer Seymour Simons (All of Me) and Rudy grew up in more than comfortable circumstances, even during the Great Depression.

His family are true old Detroiters, coming to what was then a small town in the pre-auto days of 1871; they were mostly Republicans. Rudy went to the University of Michigan and eventually started his own advertising agency. He served the usual stint in the Army (intelligence) and then, in the early 1950s, spent a few years in Europe, working for the English-language service of Radio Netherlands in Holland.

But his life began to change in 1959-60 when he, young and still single, decided to take a trip around the world. He ended up in a country few Americans had heard of called Vietnam, where he knew that Michigan State University was helping train a police force. “I spent some time there, and found out what we were really doing was not what our government said we were doing,” he said, eyes flashing.

“We were supposed to be getting the country ready for elections, which were agreed to under the Geneva Convention. Instead, we were working to prevent them, and propping up the regime in power, because (the other side) would have won them.”

That opened his eyes. He came back home, went back to work, and then one day, found himself picking up a protest sign during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He's been an activist ever since. Rudy's marched with Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma; helped rally state business executives against the Vietnam War, and, for 35 years, has showed up, always modestly, usually in the background or on the board of most good causes. (He met his wife, Roseanne, at a protest against the atom bomb.)

Unfortunately for him, he'll have to step forward - if briefly - next Saturday, when he gets the Jane Addams Peace Award from the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. He's proud, but seems a trifle embarrassed.

He'd rather talk about what he's doing now, which is rallying folks against the bombing in Afghanistan. He doesn't profess to have all the answers - or the slightest sympathy for the terrorists who planned the outrages of Sept. 11.

“I think we should treat it as a criminal conspiracy, and work to have them prosecuted through international bodies,” which, if it sounds utopian, was what the world sought to do when the United Nations was established. He isn't naive; he knows all the difficulties with that, and doesn't claim to have any instant fixes. “But I do know that bombing innocent people that have nothing to do with it isn't the answer.”

Politically, he says he is a “radical conservative.” By which he means, “I have tried to live my life, with all of its failings, in a way that reflects the values I learned at my father's knee.” And in case that sounds a little pompous, he's got a substitute motto.

“Try and make it through the day,” he says with his deep signature laugh. Lots of Michiganders hope he makes it through quite a few more.

Jack Lessenberry is The Blade's ombudsman and a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit. E-mail him at or call 1-888-746-8610.

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