MONROE - With no money in his pocket, hair hanging halfway down his back, and little more to call his own than the Honda 750 motorcycle between his legs, Aaron Simonton rode into town in 1975. The 28-year-old was an emotionally-broken veteran wanted by the Nixon-era FBI for active involvement in Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
"I was like Peter Fonda with real long hair," recalled Mr. Simonton, evoking the image of the iconoclastic star of the film Easy Rider. "I was riding around the country on my motorcycle, and I ran out of money in Temperance."
It was serendipity, because 30 years later, the once-disillusioned and unencumbered young Floridian has grown into one of Michigan's leading advocates for senior citizens and their issues - and one of their best friends. He was honored last week for his decades of single-minded dedication to a job he unceremoniously says "saved my life."
Mr. Simonton, executive director of the Monroe Senior Center, last week was awarded the 2005 Michigan Public Service Award from the American College of Health Care Administrators and was recognized by Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm for his decades of service to area seniors.
"I think God helps you find your true path, if you listen sometime," Mr. Simonton said last week, reflecting on his accomplishments over the last 30 years.
Now married with two adult daughters, he is president of the Michigan Association of Senior Centers, a board member of Mercy Memorial Hospital, and a representative on the newly formed Monroe County Suicide Prevention Committee.
He also was on the Governor's Long Term Care Task Force, and is a co-leader of the Monroe County Aging Consortium.
Three years after taking his job "on a dare," Mr. Simonton was a driving force behind efforts to build the 200-unit senior apartment building and the attached 10,000-square foot senior center in Monroe.
The center is operated in part with the proceeds from the countywide senior millage - which he helped pass - and runs a variety of health and social programs, care management services, assistance for cancer patients, and other programs.
Newly-elected Monroe County Circuit Court Judge Michael Weipert knew Mr. Simonton when they were both taking classes at Monroe County Community College and later worked with him for six years on the board of the Monroe Senior Center.
He has nothing but praise for Mr. Simonton.
"I think a lot of people don't realize that in Aaron we have an untapped expert on seniors and senior issues. He's a guy with a lot of insight and a lot of knowledge, and I think he's done a phenomenal job for the seniors of Monroe. He genuinely cares for them," Judge Weipert said.
Like so many from his generation, Mr. Simonton's experience in Vietnam changed his life.
He had volunteered for the army with the most patriotic intentions and worked at a forward supply base that came under regular and brutal attacks.
"I volunteered because I believed in all that God and mother and country. I wasn't a hero," he said.
"I discovered right away that I was a coward. I knew I couldn't hurt people. It occurred to me that this was the first time I was truly alone, and separated from my brother," Mr. Simonton said, speaking of his identical twin brother, Paul, who later followed Aaron from Miami to Monroe County, where Paul now heads the county's adult probation department.
But his experience in Vietnam in 1967-68 "kicked out all the underpinnings of my life," Mr. Simonton said.
When he returned to the states, he actively fought the war with other veterans and quickly became a target of the FBI, who showed up at his Michigan mailbox one morning with a threat: testify for the government against eight of his fellow antiwar demonstrators in Gainesville, Fla., or join them in the dock.
He testified, they were acquitted, and Mr. Simonton returned to Monroe.
His story could have ended there, but Mr. Simonton found his salvation in an odd place: among an older generation that fought its own wars, both foreign and domestic.
"It was the love and the guidance and the respect that those people gave me that saved me," Mr. Simonton said.
"Really, it was that group of people that created all the services and programs that the elderly today depend on. They had organized unions, run businesses, contributed to the country in so many ways."
He dedicated himself to their causes, befriending them as they had befriended him in his hour of need.
And over 30 years, Mr. Simonton has watched thousands of his friends die, given scores of eulogies, and worked as hard as he could to make seniors realize just how powerful they still are.
"I'd do this if they couldn't pay me. They couldn't stop me. They'd have to drag me out of here kicking and screaming," Mr. Simonton said.