Thompson takes S.C. test drive

Former Sen. Fred Thompson answers reporters' questions Wednesday about his expected presidential bid after his appearance at a South Carolina Republican Party fundraiser.

Robert Behre

Master blacksmith Philip Simmons was eulogized as a man who poured his heart into his work and his church, while others wondered if his skilled hands might one day be called on to repair the gates of heaven if he's ever needed.

"You could see him jotting things on a piece of paper while the reverend was preaching," speaker Paul Brown said of Simmons' constant search for the right design.

Simmons, 97, was celebrated Saturday in a funeral service that drew hundreds to Gaillard Auditorium. The aged blacksmith, dubbed a national treasure for his decades of craftwork and skill, died Monday surrounded by family.

Tears were few inside the auditorium for what mostly was a spiritual celebration of Simmons' life and the art form he practiced so well. Before speaking, each participant performed a ceremonial "three clangs" by slamming a smith's hammer onto a heavy anvil on the stage.

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said Simmons' work will forever be part of the city. But just as powerful, he said, is the story of Simmons as an 8-year-old child, arriving near Calhoun Street from Daniel Island to attend school and seek his fortune.

Decades later, Simmons leaves the city he loved "as one of the most celebrated citizens" in Charleston's long history, Riley said.

Simmons' great popularity can't be explained simply by his ability to bend iron into beautiful city gates. He was one of the gentlest Charlestonians of his time, well-wishers said, pointing to his kind and patient ways, and the simple way that he walked the city.

He is credited for helping keep alive an art practiced in Charleston since the 1730s, he also became a great teacher of patience and tolerance. Strangers of all sorts would come by his house and humble forge on Blake Street to soak up the atmosphere or listen to his stories.

Still, the decorative gates he made over the years remain his signature.

"Philip was able to see things that maybe the rest of us didn't see," said the Rev. Ronald E. Satterfield. "He just didn't make gates, he made 'the gate' every time."

Those gates are all over the Lowcountry, and in the Smithsonian, the State Museum, even in Paris and China.

Friends said Simmons' departure is not so much a time to be sad, as it is a recognition.

"Philip, take your rest," said speaker Charles Comfort. "Job well done."

Reach Schuyler Kropf at skropf@postandcourier.com or 937-5551.