Senior Lifestyles

He has a way with words: Con-verse-ing with local poet Bob Simon

Mary Larsen/Town Crier
Bob Simon relaxes at his Los Altos home in front of a framed caricature of former President Barack Obama by cartoonist Joel Pett.

A popular speaker, poet and author of the Town Crier column “Rhyme on My Hands” since 2013, Los Altos resident Bob Simon has a way with words.

His poems are deep and thought-provoking – or light and humorous. The succinct verses can inspire either reflection or (intended) laughter.

He has presented more than 100 programs of his poetry – to Rotary clubs, Kiwanis clubs, P.E.O. chapters, church groups and more.

At his first Rotary Club recitation in 1997 or 1998 (many more followed), seated next to him at lunch was book illustrator Mary Burkhardt, whose husband, Al, was a book designer. With their collaboration, Simon’s book “Fleeting Rhyme” was born; it was published in 2000. Profits funded athletic scholarships at Simon’s alma mater, Stanford University. Of the 1,500 books printed, only a handful remain, reserved for Simon’s future great-grandchildren.

Life before poetry

Born in San Francisco and raised in Southern California, Simon earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from Stanford, as well as an MBA from Stanford Business School.

He was in the Air Force ROTC while at Stanford and upon graduation had the choice of “two years on the ground or three in the air – I chose three in the air,” he said. During pilot training at Reese Air Force Base in Lubbock, Texas, he met his wife, Annie, then a student at Texas Tech. They were married in 1955. Simon spent the next two years flying a Globemaster out of Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield in the military air transport service to and from Tokyo.

After the Air Force came Stanford Business School, followed by jobs in sales promotion and marketing. Next was Stanford Research Institute, where he spent approximately eight years.

“I would say that at SRI there were two things that happened that were life-changing,” he said.

The first was an 18-month residency with his family in Dacca (Dhaka), then in East Pakistan. The second, while working in SRI’s Long-Range Planning Service, was an opportunity to make a documentary for conferences.

“The report the film was based on was about the postwar generation in the United States,” he said, “and we had a couple of paragraphs in there about how the attitudes of college students were changing toward how careers would integrate into the rest of their lives.”

Simon screened the film around the country approximately 100 times; even John D. Rockefeller III and Bill Hewlett requested viewings.

After SRI, Simon worked at Stanford Business School as assistant dean for corporate relations for roughly 15 years.

In 1985, as Stanford was gearing up for its 1991 Centennial celebration, the Simons moved to New York City, where Simon worked as regional director, and where they would spend the next eight and a half years.

Shortly after the Centennial campaign came to an end, Simon became director of development for North America for the American University in Cairo. He retired in 1994.

Aside from their stints in Dacca and New York City, the Simons have lived in their Los Altos home since 1964. They have three children and five grandchildren.

On poetry

Counting among his favorite poets James Whitcomb Riley and Robert Service, Simon considers himself a traditionalist – and a self-taught one.

“I don’t consider myself a student of poetry at all,” he said. “I’ve heard the term ‘iambic pentameter,’ for example – please don’t ask me what it means.”

While reciting poetry for a P.E.O. chapter in San Mateo, one of the attendees said Simon’s poetry reminded her of Riley’s. Upon returning home, he got out a poetry anthology and was struck by Riley’s poem “An Old Sweetheart of Mine.”

“I can see why she would say there’s a similarity in that most … of my poetry goes for what I would call a punch line; in other words, the very last few words are intended to have a little bit of a jolt to them,” Simon said.

At age 37, Simon penned “Elizabeth’s Christmas,” written for a colleague, Elizabeth Atwater, on the occasion of an office Christmas party.

“That one broke new ground for me,” he said. “It had … some substance to it, it had some values to it that I happen to like, and I had never done one like that.”

Elizabeth died of cancer a few years after that party; Simon described meeting her mother at a memorial service: “She said, ‘Oh, you’re my favorite, and do you know why?’ I said, ‘I think I do.’ If you think about, they had to resuscitate that poem every Christmas from that moment on, until Elizabeth was no longer there. It had to have been an important poem to the family. It reminds me of something that I think is true of a lot of things that a lot of us do – we don’t know what the impact is going to be.”

Finding he enjoyed flexing his poetic muscles, Simon started writing more and friends soon began to expect his poems on special occasions. He recalled a dinner in their New York apartment with some guests from Stanford.

“I commented that it would be relatively rare for a host to interrupt the evening by reciting some of his own poetry,” he said. “Someone at the other end of the table said, ‘However….’ So I became somewhat infamous for maybe shooting off my mouth with a little poetry when maybe I shouldn’t have.”

Simon prefers to have a particular person or event to inspire and celebrate. In addition to dozens of poems penned for friends and family on special occasions, he wrote “Centennial, the Poem” in honor of Stanford’s 100th anniversary, as well as a follow-up for the 125th. His poem “Who’s This Monument For, Anyway?” celebrates Shoup Park’s Cradle of Liberty statue.

Besides poetry, Simon enjoys graphic design and photography, and has shared his time and creativity with such groups as Foothills Congregational Church, Stanford University, Los Altos Library Endowment, Sons In Retirement, the city of Los Altos and city council candidates. One of his poems was even printed on a Caltrain poster.

“I’ve just captured every chance I’ve had over the years, whether it be the poetry or the graphics – I’ve just tried it,” he said. “So I guess my advice would be to try it – you will probably like it, and others may like it as well.”

Simon said when he considered writing the poem to Elizabeth, he confided his plans to a colleague at SRI.

“I wouldn’t do that,” his colleague said.

“Clearly, as it turned out, I would,” Simon said.

Simon was not afraid to take that first leap, and that poem spawned an endeavor that has continued for decades – giving him a creative outlet and delighting honorees and audiences alike.

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