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Forging forward - Philip Simmons remembered

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One little known fact about legendary blacksmith Philip Simmons is that he wasn't crazy about his work being painted black, although much of it was.

Instead, he preferred it be painted white.

That's why the city of Charleston plans to tie white ribbons to Simmons' ironwork in tribute of his passing Monday at age 97. It's the first of several tributes expected in the coming days as the Lowcountry bids farewell to one of its most talented and beloved craftsmen.

Simmons died at 9:30 p.m. Monday, and those who were influenced by him remembered him as a father figure, mentor, teacher and friend.

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said Simmons was "at once a very gentle man and a great life force. His beautiful artistic creations, made out of wrought iron, grace the Holy City of Charleston throughout the downtown area and beyond."

Riley invited others to honor Simmons by tying white ribbons on their wrought iron gates or railings, regardless of who forged them.

John Paul Huguley recalled how Simmons was not content with creating beautiful wrought ironwork. He also was driven to ensure the craft was passed along to a new generation.

It was their lunchtime discussion — one in which Simmons told Huguley, "Before I die, I want to pass on my trade" — that helped prompt Huguley to found the American College of the Building Arts 11 years ago.

One of Simmons' last appearances was at the college's first commencement earlier this year, and Huguley paid tribute to him then. "It was that moment when Philip said, 'I want to pass that on to generations,' I think that's what a craftsman is all about," Huguley said. "It's not good enough to just make a piece of art. You have to train the next generations."

The scene outside Simmons' forge at 30 1/2 Blake St. on Tuesday afternoon was a familiar one, as family and friends gathered to comfort one another.

Philip Simmons Jr. said his father wanted to be remembered for his work in Charleston and beyond, "and that's the way I want him to be remembered, too."

He also was a wonderful father, who helped lead his son's Boy Scout troop.

Donald Jones, a family friend, was 5 years old when he first met Simmons, who was a father figure to him. "He was a gentle, simple man, and everyone loved him," said Jones, 61.

Joseph "Ronnie" Pringle, who learned the trade from Simmons, remembered a God-fearing man, one willing and eager to teach anyone the blacksmith trade.

"Sometimes, it (learning) was easy. Sometimes it was hard," Pringle said. "It was easy when you did it right, but hard when you had to tear it down and do it all over again."

Rossie Coulter initially got involved to help raise money for a garden behind Simmons' church and eventually agreed to direct the Philip Simmons Foundation, which has been active in chronicling and preserving his legacy.

Its current project is converting his Blake Street home into a museum, gift shop and working office.

"The more people found out about him, the more they realized how much work he had done," Coulter said. "He's been a giver all of his life."

Coulter said a viewing will be held from noon to 5 p.m. Friday at the St. Johns Reformed Episcopal Church at 91 Anson St., followed by a celebration from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Gaillard Auditorium. The funeral service will be at 11 a.m. Saturday, followed by burial at Sunset Memorial Gardens in North Charleston.

Arrangements are being handled by Harleston-Boags Funeral Home.

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