Distinguished independent producer kept focus on peace and inclusion
Father Derek Simons, 1937-2023
Celebrated independent producer Father Derek Simons SVD, 86, died at Techny on March 2.
Father Simons, an award-winning television producer and civil rights champion, used communication and video to promote dialogue among people of different cultural, religious and racial backgrounds.
Born in Swansea, Wales, in 1937 and raised in London, Derek Simons was the younger of Nora (nee Davis) and Frederick Simons’s two children.
Before entering the Society of the Divine Word, he served two years in the British Royal Air Force, studied law, worked in broadcasting at the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation (NZBC) in Wellington, and in advertising at Knox Schlapp in Sydney, Australia.
Baptized Episcopalian, he converted to Catholicism after an unlikely encounter. As a young professional, he met Catholics at a party in New Zealand; he began reading the works of Graham Greene and Cardinal John Henry Newman, accepted an invitation to a Good Friday service, and forever hence chose Catholicism.
He entered the Society of the Divine Word in 1964 and professed vows in 1966 in Roscommon, Ireland. Ordained to the priesthood in 1970, Father Simons was employed by the Archdiocese of Chicago as a producer-writer with the Catholic Television Network of Chicago. He produced more than 200 television and audiovisual programs for priests and parishes.
He also served as a creative consultant with Paulist Productions in Hollywood, Calif., on the Insight television series and after-school specials.
In the 1980s, Father Simons founded and served as executive producer of Ethnic Communications Outlet/Chicago (ECO), a creative production house devoted to the empowerment of various ethnic groups. Through his work with ECO, he collaborated with many notable professionals, including singer Marilyn McCoo, model Beverly Johnson, theologian Dr. Martin Marty, actress Helen Hayes and entertainer Steve Allen. ECO received more than 40 national and international awards for program excellence.
In 1982, ECO was chosen to produce the national public service awareness campaign “Life… Love it,” which promoted Respect for Life Month.
In 1987 alone, Father Simons received a Clarion Award from Women in Communication Inc., a Wilbur Award from the Religious Public Relations Council, two Angel Awards from Religion-in-Media Inc., two Gabriel Awards from the National Catholic Association of Broadcasters and Communicators, and a Finalist Award from the International Radio Festival of New York.
In addition to his work with ECO, he served as creative director for World Alive, a multi-media exhibit about missions at Divine Word International, which later became Techny Towers Conference and Retreat Center.
The quality of his work continued to be noticed in the 1990s and beyond. In 1990, he received the prestigious Gabriel Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of his work in broadcast communication. Other recipients include radio and television host Art Linkletter, anchorman Walter Cronkite, actress Della Reese and Muppets creator Jim Henson.
In 1996, Father Simons received the Silver Dome Award by the Illinois Broadcasters Association and was tapped by ABC News/Nightline as part of a national resource team. He appeared on Nightline with Ted Koppel and co-hosted and produced The Race Question radio series on Chicago’s WLIT-FM.
In 2001, Father Simons established Angels Studio, an independent production house that developed and supported programs and resources to promote ethnic equality and understanding among the races.
As technology has changed so did the ways that Angels Studio has used it to communicate its message of racial harmony. In partnership with professional storytellers and diversity educators, he created RaceBridges, a non-sectarian, multimedia initiative that challenged injustice and exclusion and sought to build community among all people.
Through printed pieces, broadcast materials, digital media and live events, RaceBridges built bridges across class and racial division to unify communities and create a better world for future generations.
He also helped to found Catholic Schools Opposing Racism (COR), a student/teacher organization that offered workshops and educational materials to more than 300 schools in the Archdiocese of Chicago.
Ever-evolving projects continued into the new millennium. He launched the annual JustStories Festival. Begun in 2002, JustStories highlighted storytellers dedicated to social justice.
In 2010 Father Simons was awarded an Oracle Award from the National Storytelling Network for his services to the arts and community of professional storytelling. In 2014 he moved to Techny and continued his communication ministry.
In 2016, he resurrected the BridgeBuilder Awards, which recognized high school students who exceled in fostering diversity and inclusion. The 2016 winners included Bushra Amiwala who later was elected to the Skokie (Illinois) Board of Education and became the youngest Muslim elected official in the United States.
In addition to his work in communication, Father Simons also served as a priest in two of Chicago’s oldest African-American parishes, St. Elizabeth and St. Anselm (now merged into Our Lady of Africa).
Father Simons held a master’s degree in film from Columbia College in Chicago.
Father Simons funeral Mass was on March 9 at the Divine Word Residence chapel at Techny. He was laid to rest in St. Mary’s Cemetery at Techny, Ill.
In addition to his parents, Father Simons was preceded in death by his sister, Jean Lorking. In lieu of flowers, memorial donations for the care of elderly and infirmed missionaries may be sent to: Rector, Divine Word Residence, 1901 Waukegan Rd., P.O. Box 6000, Techny, IL 60082-6000.
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