The Rev. LeRoi Simmons, 74, a business owner, minister, and longtime community activist, died Thursday, May 6, at Einstein Medical Center from complications of sickle-cell anemia.
A family man, Rev. Simmons built a life around standing up for children and his Germantown neighborhood, fighting injustice whenever he saw it. But he somehow remained hopeful about the world, said City Councilmember Helen Gym, a friend.
“He was clearheaded without ever being cynical,” said Gym. “LeRoi just exhorted us to do more, every day.”
Born in North Philadelphia to Lubertha Mae and Leroy Simmons, Rev. Simmons graduated in 1965 from Benjamin Franklin High School. His father died when Rev. Simmons was 14, forcing him to grow up young, giving him a sense of responsibility for others that never left him.
Rev. Simmons served in the Marine Corps, became a licensed barber, and graduated in 1975 from Antioch University. In 1980, he started his own business in Germantown, LeRoi & Cinzia Simmons’ Full-Service Beauty Salon, which still operates.
A man of faith, Rev. Simmons earned a master’s degree from Westminster Theological Seminary in 1993. He spent time as a minister at Canaan Baptist Church and more than a decade as an associate minister at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church.
“He was deeply committed to an Afro-sensitive perspective of his Christianity,” said the Rev. Alyn E. Waller, Enon’s senior pastor. “He was a man of God who was a man of the community.”
Waller first met Rev. Simmons through Rev. Simmons’ work in Germantown. In the mid-1980s, Rev. Simmons began speaking out about overcrowded conditions at J.B. Kelly Elementary, where his daughter attended school. He and others pushed the Philadelphia School District to take action. Later, he became the school and community coordinator at Pickett Middle School, where he continued to advocate for resources and empowering families.
It was a job he relished, said Najah Purnell, Rev. Simmons’ daughter. He loved children as well as helping families and removing barriers to education.
From the late 1990s until 2010, Rev. Simmons served as executive director of the Central Germantown Council and the Germantown Clergy Initiative. He spoke out against gun violence and for more resources in schools.
Gym met Rev. Simmons in the mid-2000s, when they both began asking questions at School Reform Commission meetings about then-schools CEO Paul Vallas and a $73 million deficit in the district’s budget. Along with some other parents, Gym and Rev. Simmons founded Parents United for Public Education, which advocated for better schools.
“It was his belief in justice, hope, and the promise of a better tomorrow that really got him up and going every single day — that’s what drove him,” said Gym. “I felt like nothing was impossible with him by my side.”
Rev. Simmons was devoted to his family, including wife Cinzia Simmons, whom he met in 1984 when she and a friend came into his salon to have their hair done. Though he was a minister and a formidable presence in the community, he was something of a soft touch as a dad, said Purnell.
“He would always joke around and make silly songs,” she said. “He liked the corny jokes that Alexa tells. They were so horrible, but he would ask for a joke every day, and laugh.”
Though he had three children of his own, Rev. Simmons acted as a father to many more, Purnell said.
“There’s plenty of people who called him another dad, or another grandfather,” she said.
Sickle-cell anemia caused Rev. Simmons pain throughout his life; he was board chairman of the Delaware Valley Chapter of the Sickle Cell Disease Association of America.
But he remained busy, even as his health worsened at the end of his life. He was a frequent caller to WURD, the city’s Black-owned talk radio station, and some longtime customers at his salon still insisted he cut their hair, even as his sight dimmed. Rev. Simmons went fully blind about 18 months ago.
“He lost his sight, but not his vision for a better tomorrow,” Waller said.
In addition to his wife and daughter, Rev. Simmons is survived by sons John Simmons and Derek Murchison; five grandchildren; one great-grandchild; and a host of other relatives and friends.
A viewing will be held from 9 to 11 a.m. Tuesday, May 18, at the chapel at Ivy Hill Cemetery, 1201 Easton Rd., Philadelphia, followed by a graveside service.
Memorial donations may be made to the Sickle Cell Disease Association of America, 5300 Wynnefield Ave., Philadelphia, Pa. 19131.